ICTMN columnist Steven Newcomb spoke at the recent UNPFII meeting

UNPFII Panel Discusses Doctrine of Discovery

Gale Courey Toensing
6/13/11

The 15th century Roman Catholic popes were quite clear when it came to authorizing the kings of Portugal and Spain to conquer “undiscovered” lands, convert or enslave their inhabitants and claim exclusive ownership of all the lands’ resources.

In 1455, for example, Pope Nicholas V issued an edict, or papal bull called the Romanus Pontifex, granting “the right of conquest” to Alfonso, King of Portugal, and authorizing him “to invade, search out, capture, vanquish and subdue all Saracens and pagans whatsoever and other enemies of Christ wheresoever placed, and the kingdoms, dukedoms, principalities, dominions, possessions and all movable and immovable goods whatsoever held and possessed by them and to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery.” The “movable and immovable goods” were to be used for the benefit and profit of Alfonso and his heirs forever. The term Saracens was used by medieval Europeans to refer to all Arabs and Muslims.

This and other papal bulls were the basis of what came to known as the “Doctrine of Discovery” that dehumanized non-Christian peoples and sanctioned genocide and land theft in Africa, Asia and North and South America. Seeing that Spain and Portugal were claiming their spheres of influence across the globe, the English monarchy soon got into the act with “charters” it issued to explorers—such as the 1496 charter to John Cabot—to colonize the “New World.” The Doctrine of Discovery soon became a principle of international law—a kind of early trade-agreement which stipulated that the first Christian European country to “discover” lands populated by non-Christians could claim those lands and resources.

But the Doctrine of Discovery isn’t just a quaint artifact from history; it has been a focal point at the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) for several years, in part because it was embedded into U.S. Indian law, creating a legal framework that has been copied around the world and continues to be used to oppress indigenous peoples.

Next year, the Doctrine will be the overarching theme of the forum, and a side event at this year’s forum drew a standing-room-only audience. The May 16 panel discussion, called “Indigenous Peoples and the Doctrine of Discovery: Revealing a Legacy of Oppression—Implementing Strategies for Justic for 2012,” featured Steven Newcomb, Shawnee/Lenape, educator and author of Pagans in the Promised Land, Decoding the Doctrine of Discovery; Tonya Gonnella Frichner, Onondaga, founder of the American Indian Law Alliance and former North American UNPFII representative; Christopher H. Peters, Pohlik-lah/Karuk, chair of the Indigenous Peoples Task Force for the Parliament of the World’s Religions; Chief Oren Lyons, faithkeeper, Onondaga; and Margarita Gutiérrez Romero, Otomi, an indigenous leader and activist from Mexico.

What does the Doctrine of Discovery conjure up?” said Tia Oros Peters, Zuni, in her introduction to the panelists. (She is the executive director of the Seventh Generation Fund for Indian Development, the side event’s organizer.) “It’s a vampire that’s been sucking the life out of our people, killing our territories and devouring our cultures. Let’s wake up from the nightmare of Manifest Destiny.”

Christopher H. Peters, Tia Oros’s husband, opened the event with a parable. The story takes place “in a time before time,” Peters said. A man walking down a trail by the river suddenly sees another man sneak up on a third man who was fishing and killed him with an arrow. “Why did you kill this good man?” the first man says to the killer. “I did it to make a law,” the killer said. The law was about reparation to the dead man’s family to ease the sorrow of their loss. “Such is the law,” said the killer. “From this point on whenever something happens, whenever you commit a deed against somebody, offend somebody, hurt somebody you need to go to that family, negotiate with that family and plead with that family to settle up. That’s what we do. You settle up with them,” Peters said.

Margarita Gutierrez Romero (Otomi)

“If you take food, you pay for it, you give something back and such was life for thousands and thousands of years,” Peters explained, adding that it is through ceremonies that the earth is healed and renewed. “That’s our responsibility. We were put on earth for no other reason than to heal the earth and make it new.”

And then things changed, Peters said, alluding to the European invasion and takeover of Turtle Island. “That life of world renewal, those ideas and concepts were impacted in such a brutal way that we’re still recovering.” There are cedars and fir trees that have been standing longer than our younger brothers (the European invaders) have been here and they knew a time of spirit and peace, Peters said.

Lyons explained that indigenous peoples didn’t know until relatively recently that the Doctrine of Discovery was the source of their struggles. He recounted the journey of a delegation of indigenous peoples for their first visit to the U.N. in Geneva 1977.

“We were looking for justice and we thought we’d finally get it at the U.N. It’s like Oz, where the wizard will know the truth,” Lyons said. “We couldn’t understand why we seemed to be excluded from the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We came to find out it was because of a statement by a pope in 1493 who said if they’re not Christians, they have no title to land, only the right of occupancy.” Although that first visit to the U.N. didn’t provide the truth the delegation was seeking, it did lead to the creation of the Permanent Forum, the passage of the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the work on the Doctrine of Discovery by people like Gonnella Frichner and Newcomb that has revealed the roots of discrimination against indigenous peoples, Lyons said.

Lyons urged people to prepare well for next year’s Forum on the Doctrine. “We’ve got to get together and we really have to do this right. We have to make sure this is going to be a world position, an international position, a challenge to the very powerful states,” he said, adding that the goal is to liberate indigenous peoples from the oppression of a 500-year-old doctrine of oppression, but liberation is a two-way street. “We’re going to take it further and not only liberate ourselves, but liberate them as well, because the oppressor suffers as well. And then maybe peace, you know, the fundamental thing we all strive for—peace, peace in the world, peace. We can do it. We brought it this far. All you young people and all the people who are just gearing up, I can tell you one thing for sure: We’re on the right side on this.”

Christopher H. Peters

The Doctrine is the source of ongoing dispossession and the theft of resources, Gonnella Frichner explained. “We’re all

familiar with the fact that the gold and silver of this continent can be found in the churches and the palaces of Europe.” The Doctrine of Discovery was the subject of a paper she submitted to the UNPFII last year as a special rapporteur: The “Preliminary Study of the Impact on Indigenous Peoples of the International Legal Construct Known as the Doctrine of Discovery, Which Has Served as the Foundation of the Violation of Their Human Rights” was a groundbreaking report that found the Doctrine of Discovery has been institutionalized in law and policy, on national and international levels, resulting in the mass appropriation of the lands, territories and resources of indigenous peoples. She said, “We made a point in our study that the Doctrine of Discovery has served as the foundation of the violation of indigenous peoples’ human rights.” She added that the preliminary study needs to be taken “a step further,” toward a global examination of the Doctrine in terms of violence toward women and Mother Earth. The Doctrine created “an arrogance and a dominion and a violence on many, many levels,” Gonnella Frichner said, and it has spread around the world through the model of U.S. Indian law, she added, pointing to the famous 1823 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Johnson v. M’Intosh, which used the Doctrine to claim that the indigenous peoples of the U.S. had no right to hold title to their lands, but only had the “right of occupancy.” Most recently, the Doctrine was cited in the 2005 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in City of Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation regarding an Oneida Nation land rights claim. U.S. Indian law has served as a model for Canada, Australia and other countries in dealing with their indigenous populations and so has spread the Doctrine’s fundamental discriminatory actions throughout the world.

The violence generated by the Doctrine of Discovery stems from its inherent concept of domination, said Newcomb, who presented a paper at the side event called “Indigenous Models of Liberty and Healing: Challenging Doctrines of Discovery and Domination.” Papal bulls authorized Cristobal Colon to “discover and conquer” distant lands, Newcomb noted. “These two words indicate that Colon was given permission to locate such lands and take possession of them by violent means, in order to ‘gain dominion over: subjugate,’?” he said.

The way to “recovery from discovery” is spiritual, Newcomb said. “Spirituality, the ceremonies are so important, that grounding that we need each and every day, the offerings. By renewing the world, as Chris [Peters] said, by doing that in a prayerful way, this can go forward.”

Tia Oros Peters

But it is still important to discuss all the suffering that has been justified by the Doctrine of Discovery and all the injustices that have been sustained by it, said Margarita Gutiérrez Romero. “Now I know why I’m so drained (after being at the U.N.),” she said. “They’re zapping our energy, and really what’s happening across the street (at the U.N. building) is two different visions are clashing, two different agendas, two different hopes for the world.”

Romero said that the preliminary study on the Doctrine sheds light on the daily life of the indigenous peoples she works with on a grassroots level in Mexico, particularly Chiapas. Indigenous peoples are being alienated and stripped of their values and spirituality.” I’ve found there are people who’ve even been stripped of their smiles,” she said. Indigenous peoples drag around a historic burden and sorrow from being defined as stupid savages, Romero said. “When we’re in our communities, I wonder why is it—when we still have our language, our traditional dress, our traditional food—that we aren’t happy and it’s almost as if we have to ask permission of these foreign laws and frameworks to be happy, so I’ve concluded that being happy is part of our exercise of the right to self-determination,” Romero said to a huge round of applause.

Even the dominant society’s “generosity” is oppressive and damaging, she said. “They give us food but that food causes cancer, especially in indigenous women. Then we have diabetes and our practice of eating roots and weeds and natural foods has also been taken away. And I see especially in Chiapas, even within indigenous communities, that if a family doesn’t eat meat it’s considered poor, and that’s ridiculous because we have all these really healthy roots and vegetables around, but we’ve internalized the discrimination in a conquest mentality, even about what we eat.”

The Doctrine of Discovery needs deconstruction, Romero declared. “2012 is the perfect time to do it.”

You need to be logged in in order to post comments
Please use the log in option at the bottom of this page