The Holy See’s Destructive Legacy of Deprimantur

Steven Newcomb

Pope Francis—Jorge Mario Bergoglio—is 76 years old. He is the first pope from Latin America, the first Jesuit pope, and the first pope of our time not born in Europe. He is from Argentina, a region of the world colonized by the Spanish crown in the early 16th century on the basis of destructive papal documents issued by the Holy See in 1493. Brazil is a region of South America first colonized by the Portuguese crown on the basis of other such papal documents dating back to 1452.

One day in the Spring of 1992, I was inspired by the idea of calling upon Pope John Paul II to formally revoke the Inter Caetera papal bull of May 4, 1493. Shortly thereafter, at the Peace and the Planet conference in Eugene, Oregon, I met Birgil Kills Straight, a traditional headman of the Oglala Lakota Nation. He immediately understood the magnitude of my idea. He made plans for me to accompany him and Oglala singer Jackie Bird on a speaking tour in northern Italy that Fall. Now, twenty one years later, the campaign that we began on the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s first voyage is a global movement.

In September of 1992, I carried the idea of our campaign to Yelm, Washington, to inform the Traditional Circle of Indian Elders and Youth of my decade of research into the connection between the fifteenth century papal bulls and U.S. federal Indian law and policy.

Based on my self-published pamphlet “Pagans in the Promised Land,” Onondaga Faithkeeper Oren Lyons and I, and a couple of other people, sat up until 3:00 in the morning, drafting a document on “the Christian Nations Theory of federal Indian law.” That document was then sent to Senator Inouye of Hawai’i. As Oren Lyons reminded everyone at the recent North American Indigenous Peoples’ Caucus gathering at Sycuan in the Kumeyaay territory, the Circle of Indian Elders and Youth never did receive a response to that document.

That Fall, in 1992, Birgil and I went on the first of many speaking tours in Italy and elsewhere in the world. In Italy, the Italian people gave us a warm reception wherever we went. We publicized our call upon the pope to formally revoke the Inter Caetera papal bull of 1493 because it called for “barbarous” (i.e., non-Christian) “nations” to be “depressed” (deprimantur), meaning subjugated, overthrown, crushed, and dominated. Our originally free and independent nations and peoples have been suffering from the resulting symptoms of depression ever since.

In 1996, Father Perzywozni invited Birgil to the Italian town of Assissi to attend a gathering of eminent scholars to develop a preamble to the Earth Charter. Birgil arrived there with a brief essay he had written, explaining that the Oglalas, through ceremony, still communicate with animals as St. Francis is said to have done. Ironically, Father Perzywozni argued against Birgil’s document. It was at that gathering in Assissi that Birgil also said it was high time to reject the idea of God’s “command” to “subdue” the Earth, and “exercise dominion” over (or "dominate") all living things.

On the last day of the event in Assissi, we attended a reception where many of the highest level Vatican officials were in attendance. A monk in a grey robe approached Birgil and told him that his friend was the pope’s "white magician" who performs "magic" to protect the pope prior to his travels. We found this information to be quite odd. Why would the Pope need a magician to protect him?

Several years later, in October 2000, I traveled to Rome to be part of a small delegation of Indigenous Peoples’ representatives to dialogue with the Vatican about the papal bull. In a moment of spontaneity I carried a copy of the papal bull Inter Caetera up the steps of St. Peter’s Cathedral, and handed it to the Swiss Guard. Doing so was intended to return to the Holy See one of the subjugating documents that the papacy had issued against our nations and peoples.

Now, in 2013, the planet has entered what the Mayan people say is a new Era. Accordingly, we must renew our call upon the Holy See, now occupied by Pope Francis, to explicitly repudiate the paradigm of domination that the Holy See (commonly known as ‘the Vatican’) set into motion with papal documents issued in 1452, 1455, 1456, 1481, 1493, 1506, and 1514 that called for the Christian invasion of the non-Christian world. The year 2014 will be the 500th year since Pope Leo X, in the papal bull “High Devotion” (Praecelsae Devotionis), “newly grant[ed] everything, all and singular, contained in the aforesaid letters,” and decreed that those documents “ought to be permanently valid.”

Next year, 2014, is also the year when a U.N. General Assembly High Level Plenary Meeting will take place at the United Nations Headquarters in New York, which is the region of the traditional territories of the Algonquin speaking nations, such as the Lenape Nation. Leading up to and on that occasion we will continue to challenge the Holy See’s legacy of Christian Discovery and Domination.

Steven Newcomb (Shawnee, Lenape) is co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, author of Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery (Fulcrum, 2008), and the Indigenous and Kumeyaay Research Coordinator for the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation in the Kumeyaay territory (now commonly called "San Diego").

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Anonymous's picture
It's unfortunate that the last Mr. Anonymous (posted April 10) does not know more about the history of the legal and political writings that were used during Marshall's era, and by writers up to our time. It's true that it is also important to look at the role of the English monarchs (John Cabot Charter, etc. of 1496 that imitated the papal bulls of 1493). However, the papal bulls are the critical starting point for understanding the patterns of domination used against our nations and peoples . If you were to look at the book "Federal and State Constitutions, Colonial Charters, and Other Organic Laws of the United States," (available on googlebooks) published under order of the United States Senate in 1878, you'd find that the origin of each state of the U.S. is traced back to either some royal charter or to the papal bull of 1493 (only published in Latin in "Federal and State Constitutions." The U.S. Senate traces the origin of Florida, for example, to the Spanish Prerogatives issued to Columbus in 1492 and to the Papal Bull of 1493. Texas, New Mexico, AZ, California, Nevada, Utah, and parts of Oklahoma, Colorado, Kansas, are also traced back to those two documents and to Castilian Crown law. (See "Hispanic Law until the end of the Middle Ages," by E.N. Van KLeffens, 1968, pp. 266-80). In 1954, the U.S. government attorneys argued to the U.S. Supreme Court in Tee-Hit-Ton Indians v. United States: 13 A. The discovering nations acquired absolute title to the lands of this continent subject only to the Indian right of occupancy.-Prior to the great era of discovery beginning in the latter part of the fifteenth century, the Christian nations of Europe acquired jurisdiction over newly discovered lands by virtue of grants from the Popes, who claimed the power to grant to Christian monarchs the right to acquire territory in the possession of heathens and infidels. Lindley, The Acquisition and Government of Backward Territory in International Law (1926), pp. 124-125. For example, in 1344, Clement VI had granted the Canary Islands to Louis of Spain upon his promise to lead the islanders to the worship of Christ, and, following the discovery of the New World by Columbus, Alexander VI in 1493 and 1494 issued bulls granting to Spain all lands not under Christian rule west of a line 100 leagues west of the Azores and Cape Verde Islands. Ibid., p. 125; Cambridge Modern History (1934), Vol. 1, p. 23. The latter papal grant, because of the breaking down of the papal authority and the vastness of the territory covered, was not accepted by the other nations or even greatly relied upon by Spain, and it was necessary for the civilized, Christian nations of Europe to develop a new principle which all could acknowledge as the law by which they should regulate, as between themselves, the right of *14 acquisition of territory in the New World, which they had found to be inhabited by Indians who were heathens and uncivilized according to European standards. Lawrence, Principles of International Law (7th ed., 1923), pp. 146-147; Lindley, ibid., pp. 126-129. Also, notice this language from the U.S. legal brief in Tee-Hit-Ton that connects the Christian rationale directly to Johnson v. M'Intosh. "Although the nations of Europe thus ceased to recognize the Popes as the source of their titles to newly acquired lands, the new concept of title by discovery was based upon the same idea that lands occupied by heathens and infidels were open *15 to acquisition by the Christian nations.[FN4] As stated in Johnson v. McIntosh, 8 Wheat. 543, 573: FN4. This is demonstrated by the fact that the English sovereign's grant of a commission to the Cabots was for the discovery of countries then unknown to Christian people and to take possession in the name of the English king. Similar commissions issued to Gilbert and Raleigh. See Johnson v. McIntosh, 8 Wheat. 543, 576-577." That's the United States government's statement.
Anonymous's picture
I still see a weak connection between the English and papal bulls, and your reply is unconvincing. Elizabeth I hated the Spanish and the Catholic Church, thus provocations that led to the Spanish Armada and defeat of the Spanish. Elizabeth's successor, James I, tried to develop some reconciliation with Spain, but his countrymen were wary of his motives. A strong Catholic sentiment existed in England at that time and the King's countrymen were staunchly anti-Pope. The English Civil War and the beheading of Charles I, James' son, was largely due to fears that the English crown was growing too close to Catholicism and that England should take no direction from the Pope. With the rise of Puritanism, England was very anti-Catholic in the seventeenth century. The settling of Jamestown by the English was also a commercial venture by a joint stock company and was not initially controlled by the English Crown. The English were initially interested in plunder and riches only and in these efforts they were not motivated by either the Church of England or the Catholic Pope. The United States was founded with the strong distrust of European powers, including both Spain and England, and especially the Catholic Church. Catholics were persecuted in both Virginia and Maryland. To say that there is a significant connection between the development of the new Republic of the United States and papal bulls is supported somewhat by your references, but yours is still a fragile argument. DuWayne Smith