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Justice & Peace

Rights of Indigenous Peoples

Five Hundred Years of Injustice and Still Counting

Have you heard of the Doctrine of Discovery? Not many have. It is five hundred years of religious prejudice but, much worse even than that, it has been incorporated into the laws/legal systems of some countries. The Doctrine got its first expression in 1452 when Pope Nicholas V issued a papal bull to Portuguese King Alfonso V authorizing the King “to invade, capture, vanquish and subdue all Saracens and pagans and other enemies of Christ and to reduce such persons to perpetual slavery” and further “to take away all their possessions and property.” This bull was issued as Portuguese ships began colonizing areas of Africa occupied by millions of indigenous non-Christian peoples.

Forty years later—soon after the Christopher Columbus voyage across the Atlantic sparked an imperialist rush by European powers to control the so-called New World—Alexander VI issued Inter Caetera, a new papal bull that granted European monarchs the right to claim sovereignty over these newly “discovered” lands occupied by non-Christian “barbarous” nations. In the Inter Caetera document, Pope Alexander stated his desire that the “discovered” people be subjugated and brought to the faith.

It is important to recognize that the grim acts of genocide and conquest by Columbus and his men against the peaceful Native people were sanctioned by the above-mentioned documents of the Catholic Church.

Historian Steven Newcomb writes that “in 1537, after intense campaigning by priests the Vatican issued Sublimis Deus stating that Indians and all other people that later may be discovered by Christians are by no means to be deprived of their liberty or the possession of their property.” Newcomb continues, “This means that as positive as Sublimis Deus seems, four decades elapsed from the time of Inter Caetera bull and the issuance of Sublimis Deus.” According to Bartolome de Las Casas, millions of indigenous were decimated during those four decades.

In 1823, the Christian Doctrine of Discovery was quietly adopted into United States law by the Supreme Court in a unanimous decision by the John Marshall Court [Johnson v. McIntosh (8 Wheat., 543)]. Since then, many U.S. legal cases have been based on this decision, including one as recently as 2005 which denied the Oneida Indian Nation of New York its right of sovereignty. Today, it is still being applied to indigenous peoples worldwide and is often marked by violations of cultural practices and spiritual expressions and by expropriation of lands and resources.

The Good News

On September 13, 2007, after 20 years of debate the United Nations adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The United States initially voted no, along with Canada, New Zealand and Australia; however, all four countries have since signed on.

To help the implementation of this declaration of rights, the United Nations created a permanent forum which has conducted 11 official meetings since 2007. The 11th meeting—which focused on the Doctrine of Discovery—took place during the month of May 2012.

To follow the Indigenous at the UN

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Many indigenous groups, Christian churches, and concerned citizens from around the world sent statements of support for the full implementation of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery. In this group were the World Council of Churches, the Episcopal Church, the Quakers, the Methodist Church and the Unitarian Universalist Church.

The Executive Committee of the World Council of Churches issued a statement calling the Doctrine of Discovery “fundamentally opposed to the gospel of Jesus.” The Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church said on May 16, 2012, the “Doctrine of Discovery work in this Church is focused on education, the dismantling the structures and policies based on that evil and [on] support for the United Nations Declaration on Indigenous Peoples.” The statement of the New York Yearly Meeting (Quakers) said, “We cannot accept that the Doctrine of Discovery was ever a true authority for the forced taking of lands and the enslavement or extermination of peoples. We find it reprehensible for the United States to use the Doctrine of Discovery as a legal doctrine to compel a jurisdiction over indigenous Peoples or their lands.”

Students from Salamanca High School in southwest New York State also sent a statement that reads in part: “Last year Pope Benedict spoke to immigrants and said he hoped for a future where all people consider themselves as part of one human family. It is our belief that our creator intended for all people in the world to have love for one another. We understand all people of earth are connected. Isn’t this like Christian brotherhood? Why does a person and a religion that speaks of brotherhood still hold on to the Doctrine of Discovery? Finally, we talk to the Pope. We ask you on behalf of your people to meet with Indigenous Peoples to hear what a 500-year-old statement means today. We know that if you listened with a good mind you would not let it continue. Therefore, we ask the pope to apologize for the Doctrine of Discovery.”

Jim Mang Associate and chair of Justice and Peace Committee for Buffalo Congregation with Agnes Williams a Cattaraugus Seneca with the Indigenous Women's Initiatives Network, Buffalo NY. They have been working with the rights of Indigenous peoples for a long time.

Further Information

Since the UN Declaration was adopted in 2007 a large body of information on this topic has been developed. Type into your search engine: Doctrine of Discovery or United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

How can we help end this injustice to Indigenous Peoples?

There is a need for Catholic Groups willing to make statements:

  • Of support for the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery. (The Papal Nuncio, Vatican Representative at the UN, has claimed that the Doctrine is ancient history and no longer relevant.)
  • Calling on the United States Senate to enact the legislation that will make the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples the law of the land.

Share your concerns with your senators.