Lies of Discovery

The doctrine that enabled European colonization was born of racism and religious dogma. It must be revoked.

Kalila J. Fuller

In 2016 the Vatican, recognizing the need to understand Indigenous religious protocols, invited Indigenous spiritual leaders from around the world to Rome. On May 4, eleven leaders met outside of Rome to prepare for their visit with Pope Francis. JoDe Goudy, as chairman and a longhouse spiritual leader of the Yakama Nation, began with a song and prayer to honor his peers and the occasion. Each leader followed with a similar honoring and mission: revoke the Doctrine of Discovery.

The Doctrine of Discovery is the institutional pillar and origin of systemic racism and the global oppression of Indigenous people. One of the earliest examples of international law, the Doctrine of Discovery holds that when a European, Christian nation discovered new lands—which is to say, planted its flag on land unknown to other European nations—it acquired sovereignty over that territory and any non-Christian, non-European people living in it. This doctrine continues to influence law and policy in the United States: it was referenced in a 2005 Supreme Court Opinion by Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The doctrine originated in a series of fifteenth-century papal bulls, in particular the “Inter Caetera” bull of May 4, 1493, which called for non-Christian nations and peoples to be “reduced to the Catholic faith and Christian religion” and “subjected” in order “to propagate the Christian Empire.” The Indigenous leaders’ visit to the Vatican marked 523 years since the bull was issued.

The Indigenous leaders knew the invitation from the Vatican was a distraction, one long used by Christendom. Pope Frances had already shown himself to be indifferent to their opinions when, during his visit to the United States in September 2015, he canonized Father Junípero Serra, founder of nine of the Catholic missions in California that forced conversion and oversaw the slavery and genocide of Native people. Serra’s controversial canonization was viewed by Indigenous leaders as hypocritical and disingenuous. However, they met with the pope at the Vatican in good faith. The Indigenous leaders knew an education process that would open the door toward “I la q’ai xisha (it is lighting) ishchi’t (the road)” had to be their intent.

The papal procession gawked at the visitors’ ceremonial white buckskin regalia and head-to-toe trailing eagle headdress. My son JoDe shook the pope’s hand and greeted him in our native language by his given name: “Shix’ pa’chway, good afternoon, Jorge.” The personal exchange was respectful and reciprocal. The pope ended with “Pray for me.” JoDe replied, “Pope Francis, we all need prayer.” After the formal greeting, the Indigenous leaders met with Vatican officials, including Archbishop Silvano Maria Tomasi, who had just stepped down as one of the Holy See’s representatives to the United Nations. But in the meeting, the Vatican representatives claimed to have no knowledge of the Doctrine of Discovery.

I believe it’s time for illumination. It’s time to expose the origin, magnitude, and depth of the Holy See’s responsibility for the historical and continual violation of Indigenous humanity.

 

I speak in a borrowed language because of the Doctrine of Discovery. I’m an Indigenous Elder from a federally recognized Native Nation, the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, in Oregon. My parents came from two distinct and different Nations. My mother was a fluent Ichiskiin speaker, a spiritual longhouse leader, and a teacher. She was a descendant of Chief Joseph’s sister. Her father and grandfathers were Taixpam chiefs and spiritual leaders. My dad was Hopi from Arizona, First Mesa’s Walpi Village. He was a fluent Hopi speaker, a member of the Rabbit and Tobacco clan, and a decorated World War II veteran.

In 1972, when I was an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota, I took a class titled “Western Thought and the Racial Oppression of Man.” That class was where I first learned that the historic trauma and racial oppression directed at Indigenous people are rooted in Greek “master/slave” philosophy, Christian dogma, and so-called divine approval. The cultural message: domination is the nature of man, who uses technology to advance man over nature.

Prior to this, I was a reservation Indian with a spiritual glass half-full. I attended a Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding school and several public schools. Their message and intent were clear: assimilation into dominant society. The churches I attended promised I could be saved if only I believed in Christ as my savior. Good deeds would be rewarded and bad deeds punished. That was the same message my parents had received in boarding school and church, and with the same results.

Native values and beliefs took priority in practice and were my spiritual anchor. In school we weren’t allowed to speak our language. We were separated from our families and marched to meals, class, and Christian functions. But weekends, summers, and holidays were my salvation. Both sides of my family are traditional and practiced our sacred ceremonies and social functions separate from school. However, these practices were only placeholders for longhouse ceremonies, Hopi initiation, and my spiritual well-being. Unlike my parents, I wasn’t fluent in either Ichiskiin or Hopi, and didn’t fully understand the words to our songs. I participated in our ceremonies in dubiety.

The Doctrine of Discovery has uprooted and affected Indigenous languages. In a 2019 paper, “A Kiksht Revitalization Model: Using Linguistic Materials and a Digital Platform to Learn and Teach a Sleeping Language,” Shayleen Eaglespeaker writes, "When a language ceases to be used by a generation whether by choice or by external social factors, the dominant language or language of wider use will take [the] place of the former language in domains of the Individual or the community. This process is called language shift. Language shift happens when the language is not transmitted generationally to new speakers, or when the speakers exchange the use of a heritage language in favor of a different language such as a more dominant language. The choice to switch to the more dominant language may be conscious or unconscious, and it can happen in spite of efforts to stop it. Social factors that contribute to language shift include economic motivation, social stability, and other material rewards that the heritage language cannot provide. Language shift may also be institutionalized or forced by the dominant society."

My mother’s people, the Taixpam, follow a spiritual belief and lifestyle called Tama’nwit. In “Reciprocity of Tradition,” an article in the Spring 2020 issue of Oregon Humanities, Joe Whittle wrote, “Indigenous peoples of the Columbia Plateau have adhered to a physical and spiritual philosophy of reciprocal, equitable, and equal relationships between human beings and with the natural world around them.” My peoples’ spiritual beliefs follow the Wa’ashat reciprocity. This relationship is between human beings and the natural world.

Similarly, my father’s people, the Hopi, have kachinas who mediate reciprocity. In human ceremonial practice, kachinas are more than spiritual messengers, but not deities. The name has two parts. Ka means “respect,” and china, “spirit.” They are respected spirits—spirits of the dead; spirits of mineral, plant, and animal; spirits of all the invisible forces of life our universe entails. Both Tama’nwit and kachinas are grounded in human interconnection and codependence with nature.

We are led to believe Native history is but a blip in the history of Western man. In God Is Red, Vine Deloria Jr. wrote, “Christians must disclaim using history as a weapon of conquest.” The chain must be broken to mitigate healing and create an institutional shift to “I la q’ai xisha (It is lighting).”

We can make distinctions to start to understand the differences between the teachings of Jesus Christ and the political and legal doctrines of the church-state complex. Ancient Greek philosophy declares, “If you are not Greek, you are a barbarian.” During the crusades and conquests of the fourteenth century, Christian leaders adopted this principle. They sanctioned various forms of domination such as genocide, enslavement, and other insurmountable ways to oppress Indigenous nations and peoples. If a slave chose to become a Christian, they were still a barbarian.

The first Europeans to make contact in the Americas carried this domination edict to the sovereign Indigenous Nations they met. In 1452, Pope Nicholas V directed Portugal’s King Alfonso to “capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens [Muslims], pagans, and other enemies of Christ” and put them into “perpetual slavery” and take their “possessions and goods.” The “Inter Caetera” followed, and the Doctrine of Discovery became enshrined in colonial law. Later, the doctrine was cited by the US Supreme Court in its decision in the 1823 case of Johnson v. M’Intosh, which ruled that Native tribes did not have a right to sell their own land.

Following Deloria’s research in the 1970s, Shawnee-Lenape scholar Steven Newcomb wrote the most complete study on the relationship between the Doctrine of Discovery and US federal Indian law. Newcomb was a member of the 2016 delegation to the Vatican. He provided technical support to the spiritual leaders. While completing an MBA in the 1980s, I began reading Newcomb’s work in Indian Country Today. His research into federal Indian law decoded the Doctrine of Discovery. He employed cognitive theory and found an ongoing process of mental or conceptual activity and socialized behavior. Newcomb translated non-English words used in the doctrine. For example, the Latin word deprimatur means “to subjugate, tame, till, cultivate.” Colonize tied to “root-colon-with-digest.” Newcomb wrote the following in an email to me on November 13, 2013:

When the white men who were seated on the early US Supreme Court in the first couple of decades of the nineteenth century began to create ideas about American Indians, they turned to the already existing patterns of thought that had been used by Christian monarchs and popes in ancient times to think about (categorize) non-Christians. The ideas, arguments, and decisions reached by the Supreme Court in those early decades of the 1800’s, became a kind of intellectual inheritance formed with the understanding that future generations of the court would continue to rely upon those same religious patterns of reasoning. This was consistent with the principle called “stare decisis,” “the decision must stand.”

To this day, the US Supreme Court has never disavowed or rejected the religious categories still maintained by Supreme Court by means of the Johnson v. M’Intosh decision.

For over two thousand years, the Greek master/slave idiom and Christianity have coalesced in the face of any opposing belief. On one side is a question of divine truth and belief in revelation and in God. On the other side are mortal error, fables, and the damned and devils.

 

I recently read “Presidents and Native Peoples” by Alysa Landry in the July 2020 issue of Cowboys and Indians. It reacquainted me with the progress that’s been made in Native peoples’ relationship with dominant society, and also with the injustices done to Indigenous peoples by the same. Domination law and policy are camouflaged in plain sight as official policy toward Native Nations. The dominant narrative of how the West was won celebrates the presidents who built a country while committing racist atrocities against Native Americans.

For example, Jefferson’s Indian policy fueled the most violent and racist strategies of Andrew Jackson. Under Lincoln, US soldiers commanded by an officer who was also a Christian priest slaughtered Cheyenne and Arapaho people at Sand Creek. Under Lincoln’s watch, thirty-eight Dakota warriors were publicly hanged in Minnesota in what remains the largest mass execution in US history. Coolidge passed the Indian Citizenship Act and oversaw the Meriam Report, exposing deplorable reservation conditions while advocating federal termination of trust responsibility, the government’s moral and legal obligations to protect tribal treaty rights and lands. Truman wanted to wipe out reservations and assimilate Indians into dominant culture.

Having one of your own in high office doesn’t assure positive outcomes for uprooting the doctrine’s cultivation from the Indigenous collective conscience. The US has never had an Indigenous president, but the Herbert Hoover administration included Vice President Charles Curtis, a Kaw tribal member. Curtis grew up on the Kaw reservation and was raised by traditional Kaw grandparents in Oklahoma. He assimilated into dominant culture, becoming a Methodist and a Republican. Curtis drafted the Curtis Act of 1898, an “Act for the Protection of the People of Indian Territory.” The act would have actually overturned many treaty rights by allocating federal lands, abolishing tribal courts, and giving the Department of the Interior control over mineral leases on Indian lands.

The concepts of transactional analysis, developed by Eric Berne, and triangulation, part of Murray Bowen’s family systems theory, provide insight into Curtis’s actions against Native people. In 1968, Stephen Karpman developed the idea of the drama triangle. Triangulation is the process whereby a two-party (internal/external) relationship that is experiencing tension will naturally involve a third party to reduce tension. Curtis’s life is a drama triangle in which a Native child (Curtis) begins as a victim, becomes an enabler, and evolves into a prosecutor elite for the dominant culture who can cause devastation to the collective conscience. 

After the Yakama delegation’s visit to the Vatican, one would think Indian country and its tribal leaders would be eager to learn more about the racist Doctrine of Discovery, its roots, and how it affects our Indigenous Nations today. However, in my experience, this hasn’t been the case. There was no call to arms. More like deer in the headlights and a collective yawn.

In 1967, psychologist Martin Seligman developed the theory of “learned helplessness.” He found that learned helplessness can emerge from and contribute to depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Learned helplessness acts in mysterious ways. For Natives it emerged from the historic trauma and collective post-traumatic stress that began with the Doctrine of Discovery. The effects of this trauma on multiple generations are simultaneous and continual. The collective conscience and unconscious had no control over the experience of genocide or doctrinal indoctrination.

After the Vatican delegation returned, I attended the annual conference of Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians (ATNI) in Tulalip, Washington. At the request of Yakama Chairman JoDe Goudy, ATNI leadership reluctantly added the Doctrine of Discovery to their agenda. An impromptu breakout session on the topic had limited interest and produced only a cursory desire to learn more. However, this experience did result in a prototype for educating each tribal nation’s leadership and membership. The chair of the Yakama Nation Tribal Council developed a process that could be replicated and used by tribal governments to educate their members about the doctrine and work for full grassroots support for revoking it.

Elected tribal officials face a daunting dilemma. How do tribal councils mediate healing from the cross-generational trauma caused by the Doctrine of Discovery and create an institutional shift toward revocation of the papal bulls? Given the plethora of immediate and daunting decisions, a single, historic institutional challenge is both out of sight and out of mind.

My own tribal government is an example of this dilemma. I attended a Treaty Conference at the Museum at Warm Springs in October 2018. The conference was intended to celebrate our Treaty of 1855 with the US government and educate tribal members about it. Our tribal members were invited, with particular accommodations made for the Tribal Council. During the conference, I asked why the Doctrine of Discovery wasn’t on the agenda. I believed this issue was critical to understanding the US government’s rationale behind our treaty agreement history. After all, the doctrine was a historic and pivotal issue both to our treaty and to a Supreme Court case that was happening at the time of the conference: Washington State Department of Licensing v. Cougar Den Inc. The Chairman of the Yakama Nation who attended followed me and handed out the Yakama’s amicus curiae brief in the case to the attendees. The brief stated, “the Doctrine of Christian Discovery is legal fiction that [stated that] Christian Europeans immediately and automatically acquired legally recognized property rights in our lands upon reaching the Americas, thereby diminishing our sovereignty, which the State attempts to deploy here.” The conference organizers and speakers granted my request to add the doctrine to the agenda, but without mention of its Christian origin. Two of the eleven Tribal Council members made Kodak appearances, while a Chief slept through the conference.

I reached out to the National Congress of American Indians’ general counsel, Derrick Beetso, to ascertain Indian country’s interest in the Doctrine of Discovery. He replied, “I searched our resolutions and did not see an NCAI passed resolution that addresses the issue you raise. If it was presented at a NCAI conference, it very well did not get passed and therefore is not a standing resolution of NCAI.”

 

I believe the collective Indigenous spirit must address the racial oppression institutionalized by the spiritual anchor of the Western world, the Vatican, as executed by its historical minion, the pope. Whose transnational Indigenous voice speaks to the Holy See and represents our plight and collective conscience?

In Native American Religious Identity: Unforgotten Gods, Cherokee scholar Jace Weaver argues for a “strategic essentialism” that ascertains and expands the political interests of Native communities and also recognizes the communal dimension integral to Indigenous selfhood, in contrast to the disconnected individuality of Western culture.

My outreach to the Wisdom Weavers of the World, the Global Earth Repair Foundation, the Parliament of the World’s Religions, the Faith Action Network, and the Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon found common themes and missions regarding the Doctrine of Discovery, including the following:

  • Heal the earth (create a sustainable, compassionate world).
  • Work in the here and now; start within ourselves.
  • Find ecumenical unity in Jesus Christ and honor sacred tradition.
  • Seek pathways to peace.
  • Respond, don’t react.
  • Share Indigenous wisdom and sacred teachings.
  • Advocate for the right of Native Nations to live free and independent from oppression.
  • Work for transnational Indigenous inclusion.

I agree with the conclusion Vine Deloria made in 1973: "It is becoming increasingly apparent that we shall not have the benefit of this world for much longer. The imminent and expected destruction of the life cycle of world ecology can be prevented by a radical shift in outlook from our present naïve conception of the world as a testing ground for abstract morality to a more mature view of the universe as a comprehensive matrix of life forms. Making a shift in viewpoint is essentially religious, not economic or political."

 

I have a dream of how to achieve the institutional shift. I want a transnational Indigenous voice with integrity and vision: a call to revoke and eliminate the papal bulls that created the Doctrine of Discovery. Our peoples’ research and study demonstrate the importance of oral and written knowledge and of our connection to one another and our world. We are expanding the network of support for revocation. I want personal and collective healing from the effects of the doctrine. I want to help mitigate the dominant culture’s institutional apprehensions and create positive dialogue toward elimination of the Doctrine of Discovery.

In a 2016 essay in Oregon Humanities addressed to her son, my friend and colleague Christine Dupres wrote something I believe speaks to all our children: “Our community relies on a persistent enactment of the motions of the everyday and upon a quiet lived awareness, one I have grown to understand can bring a seed of cultural continuity up from the ground and back into the light.”

I’ve written to honor myself, but more important, to honor you, the collective. I speak to Na’ me’ pupt’ (our brother) co’ (and) Na’ mip’ tsh (father of our brother).

I ask for help and pray for I la q’ ai xisha (lighting the way). Thou’ cu ush’ (that is all I have to say).  

Comments

2 comments have been posted.

I think this is excellent. I am an Englishman living in England and so am one of the oppressors and I apologise. I met Sal some years ago introduced by my friend Adam Haas. What I picked up from this is that we have deeply held beliefs inculcated from infancy about religion and our place in the world. We are unaware of them so we never question them. The Doctrine of Discovery is exactly that - so deeply entrenched in our thinking that we are unaware of it. But it is still in operation today in many parts of the world. The invasion of Palestine by the Israelis is such a case - the Israelis sincerely believe they had a right to invade despite the existing population living there. How do we address these unconscious faith-based thought patterns? We must always examine evidence with an open mind and be prepared to question our core beliefs. Not easy.

Simon Lansdown | April 2021 | United Kingdom

Excellent analysis, forceful argument, and positive proposal; indeed we need further research into the colonial lies crafted with the collusion of religious entities and political powers. Here in India, the local cultures and indigenous peoples were victims of colonial dominations of more than one Western powers, Brahminical ideology based on purity and pollution, and local kingdoms

George Pattery | April 2021 | India

Add a Comment

Related Stories

Also in this Issue

From the Director: The Great Divide

Editor's Note: Possession

Looking Forward, Looking Back

Lies of Discovery

Who's Being Left Out?

Can the Land Make Us One People?

Cekpa

Where We Store Shame

The Things We Carry

Posts

People, Places, Things

Discussion Questions and Further Reading