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Aboriginal Leader Calls for Vigilance as U.N. Looks at 'Doctrine of Discovery'

Peter d'Errico
5/24/11

Michael Anderson is leader of the Euahlayi People, a 3,000 strong Aboriginal Nation and convener of the New Way Sovereignty Summit on the status and place of Aboriginal peoples in contemporary Australia and beyond.

In a statement released after this year's Summit, Anderson issued a warning about the May 16 side event to the 10th session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII), on the 'doctrine of discovery': "we must be assured that this is not another move by the United Nations and their member states to formulate a strategy to interfere with Aboriginal moves to have this matter truly investigated by legal enquiry."

The target of Anderson's concern is the 500-year-old claim that Christian empires had a divine right to appropriate whatever lands they 'discovered,' no matter that the lands were in the possession of Indigenous nations and peoples. Invader governments used the doctrine, promulgated by 15th century popes, to justify land claims in areas now known as Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the United States, and elsewhere in the world.

The UNPFII decision to focus on this issue is a major development, based on decades of inquiry in and out of the U.N. Vine Deloria, Jr., (Standing Rock Dakota) wrote about the doctrine in the late 1960s. In the late 1980s, Tupac Enrique Acosta sent a letter to the Vatican challenging the doctrine. In 1992, Steven Newcomb (Shawnee/Lenape) and Birgil Kills Straight (Oglala Lakota), of the Indigenous Law Institute (ILI), called for revocation of the "Inter Caetera" papal bull that embodied and advanced the doctrine.

Anderson and the New Way Sovereignty Summit are allies in this effort; but are cautious about the UN: "We must be diligent and constantly on alert to moves by the invader society leaders because they need to be re-assured that their position is maintained for the sake of a stable society that they rule over…." Anderson added, "The leaders of the dominant society are beginning to panic and make all the moves to pretend that they care and seek to correct the wrongs."

In recent years, non-indigenous critics have allied themselves with the ILI, Onondaga Faith Keeper Oren Lyons, and other indigenous voices to challenge the doctrine. The Episcopal Church renounced the doctrine at its 2009 General Convention; National Indigenous Anglican Bishop Mark MacDonald called the doctrine "a corrupting idea … that distorts humanity, distorts peoples' ability to see." There's even a special Doctrine of Discovery website for a study group of Episcopalians.

Newcomb has continued to contribute scholarship to the effort. His book, "Pagans in the Promised Land," is a "decoding" of the doctrine, tracing the Old Testament narrative of "chosen people and the promised land" through the papal bulls to the 1823 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Johnson v. McIntosh.

The impetus to move the UNPFII to focus on the doctrine was the "Preliminary study of the impact on indigenous peoples of the international legal construct known as the Doctrine of Discovery" (E/C.19/2010/13), submitted by Tonya Gonnella-Frichner (Onondaga Nation), Founder and President of the American Indian Law Alliance and then a member of UNPFII for North America, in her capacity as Special Rapporteur to the 9th Session. The study finds that the Doctrine of Discovery, and the "framework of dominance" of which it is a part, has "been institutionalized in law and policy, on national and international levels, and lies at the root of the violations of indigenous peoples’ human rights, both individual and collective. This has resulted in State claims to and the mass appropriation of the lands, territories and resources of indigenous peoples."

Michael Anderson's warning is well taken: it appears that some U.N. member states are concerned in the face of the significance of the issues now before them. In fact, an effort has already begun pressure to defuse the challenge—proposing that the doctrine of discovery be resolved by a "doctrine of reconciliation," a notion that can be traced to the Inquisition. As one commentator has pointed out, reconciliation is "a process of denial, justification, [and] excuse." In the Inquisition it was used to quell rebelliousness.

The skill and scholarship arrayed in the May 16 side session are a sign of continuing deep and persistent challenge from indigenous nations and peoples around the world. Two key elements of that challenge now coming from the ILI are the need for "recovery from discovery" and to "end the domination." The UNPFII will need all the muscle it can get to stand firm in the face of behind-the-scenes maneuvers to obscure or obstruct the challenge.

Peter d’Errico graduated from Yale Law School in 1968 and served as staff attorney in Dinebeiina Nahiilna Be Agaditahe Navajo Legal Services from 1968 to 1970. From 1970 to 2002, he taught Legal Studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He currently a consulting attorney on indigenous issues.

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