On June 24, 2012, the General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) voted to officially repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery (DOD). The what, you say? Exactly. The DOD (or Doctrine of Christian Discovery, as it is sometimes referred to) is one of the most important historical and contemporary issues that Native activists and communities talk about, educate regarding, and work against, and yet the vast majority of non-Natives have never heard of it.
In short, the Doctrine of Discovery is the deceptively simply historical notion that Europeans had rights to the lands of the Americas by right of discovery and verbal fiat from the Pope and Christian European kings and queens. Although this may sound to most modern readers like historical malarkey that we have all abandoned long ago (and, in fact, never subscribed to in the first place), this notion has resurfaced repeatedly in American history and, indeed, silently undergirds not just public discourse about Native land rights and sovereignty, but the U.S. Federal Court system as well.
The DOD has its roots in pre-Columbian European expansion, mainly in the colonization of the Azores, Madeira, and the Canary Islands by the Portuguese and Spanish in the fifteenth century. Most scholars date the official origin of the DOD to the papal bull issued in 1452 by Nicholas V to King Alfonso V of Portugal, which specifically sanctioned the colonization of non-Christian lands by Christian European monarchs and their emissaries. It was with this fictive legal and religious authority that Columbus first claimed the island of Guanahani (San Salvador, in the present-day Bahamas) for Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492 (an authority that was reconfirmed by Pope Alexander VI in 1493).
Papal bulls between 1481 and 1529—including The Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494—attempted to keep the peace between competing and expanding European empires by officially dividing the newly “discovered” lands of the northeastern Atlantic, the Americas, and the West Indies between the Spanish and the Portuguese. After the 1520s, Protestant nations like England and eventually the Netherlands followed suit, replacing the authority of the pope with that of a king or ruler.
It takes little effort to convince most modern-day Americans (or Euro-American residents of the Americas) that this was a preposterous notion, rooted firmly in the arrogance of Europeans’ self-perceived cultural and religious superiority. So then, what’s the big deal?
The problem is that the DOD—or at least the ideas behind it—has never gone away. It still influences much of the cultural assumptions of non-Native inhabitants of the Americas, particularly in the U.S. and Canada. More perniciously, the DOD actually continues to inform the U.S. legal system in terms of how it determines the ongoing rights of Native peoples within its borders. One of the clearest examples of this is the infamous 1823 Johnson v. M’Intosh ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court. In it, Chief Justice Marshall ruled that only the U.S. Congress had the right to buy and sell Native land and based this right on the original “discovery” and conquest of the Americas by Europeans who were sent by Christian kings and queens to Christianize and conquer the “heathen” peoples.
The implications of this ruling were simply tragic, and its logic defies rational and historical analysis. In an astonishing overturning of colonial practice and belief, in one fell swoop American Indians were decreed to have never been the rightful possessors of their land in the first place, all based on this notion of the authority of European discovery (the word “discovery” is used twenty-three times in the ruling).
Johnson v. M’Intosh has had a long shadow. Up through the present, it remains the legal standard for Native land rights cases and was indirectly cited in court decisions as recently as the 2005 decision City of Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation of N.Y. (this 2005 ruling cited a 1985 ruling, County of Oneida v. Oneida Indian Nation, which explicitly references the “doctrine of discovery” and cites Johnson v. M’Intosh as one of the prior precedents).
In many ways, however, the tide is turning, even if officially this legal precedent is still firmly in place. Some of the most interesting recent developments have been taking place on the international stage. The United Nations established a Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in 2000. In 2007 the United Nations overwhelmingly passed an unprecedented document, titled the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). It is the boldest and most comprehensive statement to date on the rights of indigenous populations worldwide, but particularly of those in the “Lands of the Demographic Takeover,” as Alfred Crosby has described it (PDF), or North and South America (including the Caribbean islands), New Zealand, and Australia. The United States was only one of four nations out of 147 that voted against UNDRIP (the other three were, predictably, New Zealand, Canada, and Australia). Although the governments of Canada, New Zealand, and Australia have all subsequently signed on to UNDRIP, the U.S. remains the sole holdout. Obama declared in December 2010 that the U.S. will sign UNDRIP, but so far he has been unable (or unwilling) to get the U.S. Congress to officially endorse it.
As groundbreaking as the UUA resolution was last month, it was not the first such motion by a religious body. That honor goes to the Episcopal Church, which in 2009 passed a resolution that officially denounced the DOD and called for the U.S. to sign on to UNDRIP. The World Council of Churches eventually followed suit in February 2012 during its executive committee meeting in Switzerland. The hope is as other denominations learn about this doctrine and its history, they, too, will be compelled to repudiate it officially and join the growing chorus of calls for the U.S. to adopt UNDRIP. The DOD even has its own Wikipedia page (which marks a certain coming of age in the wider public consciousness, I guess).
In the meantime, despite the wider academy’s failure to engage the DOD as a serious academic topic of inquiry, Native academics have led the way, putting together panels at academic conferences, running regional seminars and listservs (like the one out of Syracuse University), creating an informative website, and publishing books and articles on the topic (one of the best summaries of the DOD is a little essay titled “Five Hundred Years of Injustice,” by Steve Newcomb). This dedicated cadre of Native scholars and activists deserve the credit for bringing this important historical and present-day issue to the attention of literally millions of people around the world, including a growing number of Christian churches and other religious bodies.
Linford D. Fisher is Assistant Professor of History at Brown University and author of The Indian Great Awakening: Religion and the Shaping of Native Cultures in Early America (Oxford, 2012).