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  • Writer's pictureAntonio Gonzales

Indigenous Groups Challenge Doctrine of Christian Discovery and Domination

(Published in 2011)

Ask of Me and I shall Give to thee the Heathen as Thine Inheritance and the Uttermost parts of the Earth for Thy Possession. -Psalms 2:8

Margarita Gutierrez Romero is the president of the State Coordinator of Indigenous Women Organizations in Chiapas, Mexico. In New York City to participate in the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII), Romero told us, "Indigenous peoples are being permanently alienated from our being. We are being stripped, ripped off, and plundered of our values, our spirituality, our spirits, even of our gods," she said.

During the two weeks of the annual May forum, indigenous peoples and nations from every corner of the globe converge on the original Lenape island of Manhattan in order to have their voices heard by the world body concerning the violations of their rights, environmental destruction, rising suicide rates, water contamination, as well the effects of climate change.

Romero was speaking at a side event about the root of the problems affecting her people - the dehumanization caused by the "Doctrine of Christian Discovery."

The "doctrine," which will be the theme of next year's highly anticipated UNPFII, would have sounded like conspiracy not too long ago.

Today, thanks to exhaustive research by indigenous scholars and law researchers, the doctrine has been brought front and center.

Tonya Gonnella Frichner, of the Onondaga Nation, is an attorney and president and founder of the American Indian Law Alliance. In 2009, Frichner, who was then North American representative to the UN Permanent Forum, was appointed special rapporteur to conduct a preliminary study of the impact on indigenous peoples of the international legal construct known as the "Doctrine of Discovery." She submitted that study to the Permanent Forum in 2010.

Speaking at the same recent side event, Frichner revealed, "What we found is that the doctrine of discovery has been institutionalized in the laws and policies on the national and international level and lies at the roots of the violations of the indigenous people's human rights, both individual and collective."

This institutionalization took time. About 500 years.

Steven Newcomb (Lenape/Shawnee) is the author of the book "Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery" < >and has redefined the way the doctrine is discussed today. Newcomb explained the doctrine to Truthout, "The Doctrine of Christian Discovery was a claim that the first Christian monarch or people to locate lands inhabited by non-Christians had the right to assume a right of domination over those lands simply because the original nations were not Christians."

This claim was expressed in Roman Catholic papal edicts "dum Diversas" in 1452 and "Romanus Pontifex" in 1455 issued by Pope Nicholas V.

These edicts granted Portugal, as Newcomb quotes them, "the right 'to invade, capture, vanquish and subdue' all non-Christians, 'to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery,' and to 'take away all their possessions and property.'"

This gave Portugal its justification to invade the west coast of Africa and essentially ignite the global slave trade.

Later, in 1493, Pope Alexander VI followed the tradition of his predecessors by issuing the document "Inter Caetera," which continued the claim for Spain following the voyage of Columbus.

In the race for global dominance, King Henry VII of England was not to be outdone. The king granted a commission to explorer John Cabot, adopting similar language in 1495 to claim for the crown the lands of heathens and infidels not yet discovered by "any Christian people" such as Spain or Portugal.

In 1823, it was this commission that served as the foundation of a decision by the US Supreme Court in the landmark case of Johnson v. M'Intosh. The court cited the Cabot charter and eight other such documents to justify its decision on the basis of Christian discovery.

The Johnson ruling then became the legal precedent for future court decisions on US dominion and Indian land policy, cementing the doctrine of Christian discovery in US law.

Chief Justice John Marshall, who presided over and wrote the Johnson v. M'Intosh decision, explained in his 1824 "History of the American Colonies" that King Henry VII, "granted a commission to John Cabot in order to discover countries unoccupied by any christian state and take possession of them in his [the king's] name."

According to Henry Wheaton, the Supreme Court reporter during the trial, "It thus became a maxim of policy and of law that the right of the native Indians was subordinate to that of the first christian discoverer, whose paramount claim excluded that of every other civilized nation and gradually extinguished that of the natives."

Wheaton added, "According to the European ideas of that age, the heathen nations of the other quarters of the globe were the lawful spoil and prey of their civilized conquerors."

The preliminary study submitted by Frichner has documented "that for more than 500 years the Doctrine of Discovery has been global in scope and application. At least two Governments other than the United States, Canada and Australia, have cited the Johnson v. M'Intosh ruling to enforce the Doctrine of Discovery."

In summation of the doctrine's theory, Newcomb told Truthout, "This thinking provided the rationale for claiming the right to invade and assume a sovereign right of conquest and domination over non-Christian lands, territories and resources, anywhere on the planet."

The results of which are very much felt today as Romero told us, "this concept of discovery wants to convince Indigenous Peoples that we are inferior beings, that we don't have souls or spirits and they use that premise to enslave us, to build their churches, to labor on their farms and plantations and to justify raping us as women. We carry this historic burden, this intergenerational sorrow ... which defines us as stupid Indians and savages."

A Framework of Dominance

The language of empire is at the heart of Newcomb's studies. He gave Truthout an example of its importance in understanding what indigenous peoples are really up against. "In the Inter Caetera papal bull of 1493, issued by Pope Alexander VI, a sentence reads in English: 'We trust in Him from whom empires, governments and all good things proceed.' In the original version of the sentence the Latin word for governments is 'dominationes.' Thus, the Latin word for a single government is, 'domination.' For indigenous nations this has a particular poignancy because their experiences of overbearing "government" policies is an experience of domination and its twin, dehumanization," Newcomb explains.

Romero summed this up eloquently, "I wonder why if we still have our language and our traditional dress and our traditional food we aren't happy? It's almost as if we have to ask permission of these foreign laws and frameworks to be happy." She adds, "I've found that there are peoples who've been stripped even of their smiles. So I've concluded that being happy is like part of our exercise of our right to self determination."

The alternative to this construct, says Newcomb, is "models of healing and renewal. I argue that those models are to be found in the traditional knowledge and wisdom systems of Indigenous Peoples. It is now time to actively turn toward and advocate in behalf of those models in this time of intense upheaval and transition."

"The preliminary study," according to Newcomb, "used the 'framework of dominance' to pinpoint the issues of domination and dehumanization that indigenous peoples continue to face on a daily basis everywhere on the planet. Some people, in an effort to legitimize domination, typically call that framework 'conquest.' Our opinion is that 'domination' is not the same as 'conquest' because domination can and must be resisted and eventually overcome. The Recommendation to the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues is this, 'End the Domination.'"

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