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  • Writer's pictureAntonio Gonzales

Gonzalez: Indians want Pope Francis to rescind doctrine

Apologies are fine, but Native Americans need concrete action from the Vatican, says Sid Hill, Tadodaho (chief) of upstate’s Onondaga Nation.

Hill, a longtime defender of native rights, was elated to hear Pope Francis acknowledge in July the “grave sins” perpetrated against the indigenous people of our hemisphere “in the name of God.”

“I humbly ask forgiveness, not only for the offense of the church herself, but also for crimes committed against the native peoples during the so-called conquest of America,” the Pope went on to say while visiting Bolivia.

A stunning admission for the head of a church that perfected the alliance of military conquest and missionary zeal.

But Hill and other Native American leaders are hoping that Francis, as the first Pope from the Americas, will take a bigger step during his U.S. visit next month. They want him to finally renounce Vatican policy toward Indians that has remained in effect for more than 500 years.

Called the Doctrine of Discovery, it was first expressed by Pope Nicholas V in 1452, in a papal bull that authorized the King of Portugal to “invade, capture, vanquish and subdue . . . all Saracens and pagans, and other enemies of Christ . . . to reduce such persons to perpetual slavery” and “to take away all their possessions and property.”

After Columbus sailed to the New World, Pope Alexander VI reaffirmed the doctrine by granting European monarchs sovereignty in newly “discovered” lands occupied by “barbarous nations.”

In the wake of those church pronouncements, all modern states with indigenous populations adopted legal arguments that the “discovered” Indians had no sovereign rights to their land.

If you think this is ancient history, take a look at a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court decision, City of Sherrill, N.Y. v. Oneida Indian Nation. That ruling against the Oneida was written by the liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

“Under the ‘doctrine of discovery’. . . fee title to the lands occupied by Indians when the colonists arrived became vested in the sovereign — first the discovering European nation and later the original states and the United States,” Justice Ginsburg noted.

“This is a very ancient wound,” says Oren Lyons, faithkeeper for the Onondaga. “But it continues to fester, and it’s relevant in the world today.”

Lyons, 84, has represented Native Americans before the United Nations since 1977. A few years ago, he helped achieve the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The last major country in the world to support that declaration was the United States.

In recent years, the World Council of Churches, the United Methodist Church and the Leadership Conference of Religious Women have all condemned the Doctrine of Discovery, yet the Vatican has been silent.

Despite countless meetings with the Holy See, Native American leaders have had no success getting previous Popes to rescind the doctrine.

Now Lyons, Hill and other leaders like Sandra Bigtree of the Mohawk Nation, are pressing for a face-to-face meeting with Francis.

They plan to organize a protest march in Philadelphia next month to highlight the issue during the papal visit there.

Bigtree grew up near a Jesuit mission on Syracuse’s Onondaga Lake, all of which was once Indian country.

“It became the most polluted lake in the country,” Bigtree said, “and we’ve fought for years to change that. We’ve had to go up against the community, who think it was great the native people were missionized.”

So Bigtree and her fellow leaders are glad the Pope apologized for the sins of the church toward native peoples. If only he would renounce the doctrine that justified it all.



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