U.N. Permanent Forum Raises Stakes on Christian Discovery Doctrine
Professor Joshua Jeffers, a History Ph.D. candidate and instructor at Purdue University, authored an important study of the Doctrine of Christian Discovery, published in the Maryland Historical Magazine (Spring 2013). Jeffers began his scholarly review with a discussion of the 1823 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Johnson v. M'Intosh, which made the Doctrine "the fundamental legal principle on which United States land title was based…with devastating consequences for Native Americans."
After a thorough analysis of the trajectory of the Doctrine of Christian Discovery from its origins in 15th century papal decrees, Jeffers explores the ways in which this once-obscure religious-legal doctrine has emerged into open discussion in our time. He describes the current situation as "increasing ferment over this issue." Readers of Indian Country Today are witnesses to this ferment, as columnists and news articles report the growing movement to focus United Nations attention on Christian Discovery as a colonial and imperial doctrine.
In a provocative conclusion, Jeffers suggests that Native Peoples' 21st century challenge to the doctrine are as significant as the 16th century debates that examined theological and legal underpinnings of Spanish colonialism. He points out that the current reexamination of Johnson v. McIntosh, calling into question its legitimacy as a precedent, also echoes arguments among 17th century British land speculators and 18th and 19th century American legal theorists.
Jeffers's conclusion about the historical significance of the present moment seems amply supported by the facts. As he notes, "in the past two decades more than 750 articles and several books, from scholars as varied as political scientists, legal theorists, and colonial historians, have critically evaluated the Johnson ruling."
Not only has there been an explosion of scholarship and commentary, the critique has broken out of the academic arena and into the regular press and the international political arena.
The 11th session (2012) of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues examined the Doctrine of Christian Discovery as a "special theme." The session involved a panel of international experts, preparation of a conference paper, and statements from indigenous peoples around the globe. The Report of the session recommended that a formal study be undertaken on behalf of the Permanent Forum itself.
The study recommended by the special session was prepared by Mr. Edward John, a member of the Forum, and is now in final editing stage. It will be presented at the 13th session of the Forum, scheduled for 12-23 May 2014. Mr. John investigates not only the "impacts" of the Doctrine of Christian Discovery, but also "mechanisms, processes and instruments of redress."
The Study will indeed reach the level of historical significance suggested by Prof. Jeffers: it portends a worldwide examination of the notion of Christian Discovery, with implications for law, politics, and economics, as well as for the proper place of religion in the activities of government. The question is whether the discussion will focus on "redress" as the verb meaning "put on new clothes," or "redress" as the noun and verb meaning "put back into a stable, upright position."
For starters, it is significant to refer to the doctrine by its full and proper name—Doctrine of Christian Discovery—and not by the common phrase used by most writers, even those who are critical—Doctrine of Discovery. This emphasizes that the doctrine is rooted in religion. It is not a secular rule, but a rule of religious discrimination.
We owe it to Steven Newcomb for laying the scholarly groundwork demonstrating the historical and documentary record of "discovery" as a religious doctrine. It was Newcomb who hammered on "Christian Discovery," at a time when most writers were simply referring to "European Discovery."
The historical record that "European Discovery" is "Christian Discovery" is clear all the way back to the initial colonial intrusion, when Christopher Columbus planted the Spanish flag in the "New World" in 1492.
In the 1493 Bull "Inter Caetera," Pope Alexander VI praised "our beloved son, Christopher Columbus"; and, for the Spanish Crown that financed Columbus, the Pope did "give, grant, and assign to you and your heirs and successors, kings of Castile and Leon, forever, …all rights, jurisdictions, and appurtenances, all islands and mainlands found and to be found, discovered and to be discovered." The only limit to the Pope's grant was if the lands were already "in the actual possession of any Christian king or prince." Columbus' name bears witness to the doctrine: As the Oxford English Dictionary states, "Christopher" means "Christ-bearing."
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