Pope Francis and Indigenous Peoples

Steven Newcomb

On September 22, Pope Francis’ jet touched down in the traditional territory of the Piskataway Nation (Washington, D.C.). From there he traveled to the traditional territory of the Lenape Nation (New York City and Philadelphia). The pope’s visit to North America has been celebrated by Catholics, and by those who admire his position on such issues as climate change, poverty, gay rights, the need for corporate responsibility, and Vatican reform.

For those of us, however, who are from the original “Indian” nations of this western hemisphere, the pope’s visit raises the Catholic Church’s dark and complex history in relation to our nations and peoples. While visiting Bolivia in July, Pope Francis alluded to the Church’s checkered past with original peoples. In a statement of contrition, the pope said: “I humbly ask forgiveness, not only for the offenses of the church herself, but also for crimes committed against the native peoples during the so-called conquest of America.”

The church’s offenses against Indigenous peoples are well illustrated by many documents the Holy See issued decades prior to and shortly after the first voyage of Christopher Columbus. Those documents declared war against non-Christians everywhere. In 1452, for example, Pope Nicholas V authorized King Alfonso V of Portugal to sail to Africa and to other non-Christian lands. The pope exhorted the Portuguese monarch “to invade, capture, vanquish, and subdue,” all “Saracens and pagans,” “to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery,” and “to take away all their possessions and property.”

A close reading of the Latin and English versions of papal documents issued during the fifteenth century reveals a key fact. The Catholic institution of the Holy See specifically authorized what Pope Francis has called “the so-called conquest of America.” In 1493, Pope Alexander VI called for “barbarous nations” to be dominated, by being “subjugated,” as part of the “propagation of the Christian empire” (“imperii Christiani propagationem”).

Pope Francis’s mention of the “offenses of the church” is taken to a deeper level when we read the Latin version of the Inter Caetera papal document of May 3, 1493. Pope Alexander VI put his apostolic power behind Spain’s proposal to “reduce” and “subject” non-Christian “islands and mainlands,” along with “their natives and inhabitants,” to Christian rule. Pope Alexander called the Spanish crown’s proposal to subject and reduce barbarous nations “sacred” and “praiseworthy.”

On September 24, The New York Times reported that Pope Francis praised the United States for “devotion to freedom of liberty and religion.” Clearly, the pontiff does not know that it took until 1978 for Congress to pass the American Indian Religious Freedom Act. Such legislation was needed because of the legacy of the ancient Vatican papal bulls in U.S. law. That little known connection was made clear by Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story in his Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States (1833). Chapter One is titled, “Origin and Title to the Territories of the Colonies.” There, Story drew a direct connection between the Latin version of a 1493 papal bull and the 1823 U.S. Supreme Court ruling Johnson & Graham’s Lessee v. M’Intosh.

Paraphrasing Johnson v. M’Intosh, Story wrote: “The Papal authority, too, was brought in aid of these great designs [for Christian colonization]; and for the purpose of overthrowing heathenism, and propagating the Catholic religion, Alexander the Sixth, by a Bull issued in 1493, granted to the crown of Castile the whole of the immense territory then discovered, or to be discovered…so far as it was not possessed by any Christian prince.”

Story then connected that papal language to “the right of discovery” expressed by his friend Chief Justice John Marshall in the Johnson ruling. To this day, the Johnson decision defines the original Indian land title of our nations as mere “occupancy” in U.S. law, subject to a claim of what Story called “absolute dominion” as “a right acquired by discovery.” In other words, the U.S. Supreme Court claimed that a “pretension” of Christian discovery of non-Christian lands resulted in the colonizers giving themselves a right of domination to and over the soil. The U.S. Justice Department made this very argument to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1954, in the case Tee-Hit-Ton Indians v. United States. In its 1955 decision in Tee-Hit-Ton, the Supreme Court cited to Henry Wheaton’s Elements of International Law, “The heathen nations of the other quarters of the globe were the lawful spoil and prey of their civilized conquerors.”

On Thursday, September 24, Pope Francis addressed both houses of the U.S. Congress, and, according to Tim Murphy at Mother Jones, Francis “took a step to acknowledge” the United States’ ”(and the church’s) often horrific treatment of American Indians.” “Those first contacts were often turbulent and violent,” said the pope, “but it is difficult to judge the past by the criteria of the present.” Such language deftly side-steps the fact that Pope Francis’ predecessors issued papal documents which called for propagating Christian empire and domination against our nations and peoples in the name of evangelism.

Pope Francis and the U.S. Congress need to acknowledge that, in 2015, the dominating language of ancient papal documents serves to underpin U.S. federal Indian law and policy. That’s an ongoing manifestation of the “often horrific treatment” or our nations that the pope mentioned. It’s time for Pope Francis to seize the opportunity to fully acknowledge before the world, and then revoke, the papal documents of domination and dehumanization which have resulted in an ongoing legacy of injustice, dispossession, and trauma for our original nations and peoples.

Steven Newcomb (Shawnee, Lenape) is co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, and the author of Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery, and co-producer of the documentary, The Doctrine of Discovery: Unmasking the Domination Code.

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