Human history is rife with injustices: those on a small scale like the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti to those on a large scale like the Nazi Holocaust and the African slave trade. One of the biggies has been the seizure of land occupied by indigenous peoples.
Around the middle of the 15th century, explorers found land outside Europe. The Doctrine of Discovery, a series of papal bulls promulgated from 1452 to 1493, stated that when Christians discovered a land occupied by non-Christians, the land belonged to the Christians who could kill or enslave the current inhabitants. This presumptuous and cruel statement is still on the books in the United States. In 2009, the Episcopalians and the Quaker Indian Committee advocated repudiation of the doctrine, followed by the World Council of Churches and the Unitarian Universalists in 2012.
Did the promulgation of Doctrine of Discovery initiate five hundred years of exploitation and brutality toward the native peoples of the Americas? This seems to be the point of view of the Unitarian Universalist and other religions’ campaign to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery. It follows if the Doctrine of Discovery is repudiated, the exploitation of native peoples will cease and we can rest knowing we did a good deed.
Not so fast. Given the timing, it appears the Europeans created the Doctrine of Discovery as a religious justification or a divine mandate, for the colonization process that had been going on since the beginning of history. It’s not just white people conquering people of color. More technologically advanced peoples have always driven out the more primitive. This hoary human tradition began when Homo sapiens exterminated Homo neanderthalensis. During Biblical times, God congratulated the Israelites for their genocide of the Canaanites. In the first millennium, the Bantus drove out the !Kung in Africa, the Han Chinese routed the indigenous peoples in China. [Jared Diamond Guns, Germs, and Steel] Then Europeans continued this brutal tradition when explorers found lands occupied by less technologically advanced peoples. Repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery won’t change the human propensity to conquer weaker people’s territory.
The world of the 21st century is very different from the one in which the Pope issued this doctrine. In 1452, Europe was a collection of about 5,000 principalities all warring with each other. No one state was powerful enough to keep the peace. Now the Great Powers of western Europe have learned to get along. They haven’t fought each other since 1945, the lifetime of the first Baby Boomers. Also, western Europe’s deaths by homicide are the lowest in the world.
The 15th century was a violent life for the indigenous inhabitants of the world as well as for Europeans. In pre-state societies deaths by war and homicide are almost three orders of magnitude higher than in modern state societies. [Steven Pinker The Better Angels of Our Nature p 64] But five hundred years later former colonial lands are administered by modern states. Now Europe’s former colonies such as New Guinea have laws, police, courts. No more raiding, feuding, or waking up with a spear through your side.
As an Auyuna man, a hunter gatherer native of western New Guinea put it, “Life was better since the government came.” How could this man who was colonized say life became better? Because it was safer. The man continues, “A man could now eat without looking over his shoulder and could leave his house in the morning to urinate without being shot.” [Pinker p 56] Although the colonization process was often brutal, the upshot is a safer life for all.
If states are to keep the peace among its citizens, they can’t allow competing jurisdictions within their borders. For instance, the United States won’t allow Mormons to run Utah as a theocracy or Mississippi to become a slave state. So why would the federal government allow a first nation to establish a competing jurisdiction within its borders? The Doctrine of Discovery is still on the books, so to speak, because it’s cited in Indian vs. non-Indian land use cases in the United States in order to squash competing jurisdictions, not to enslave or kill Indians. Currently the doctrine is interpreted to mean that any indigenous people living within the borders of a larger state merely have the right of occupancy as domestic dependent nations. Indian nations do not have the rights of other sovereign nations outside US borders.
Rather than use our limited time and energy fighting a symbol few have heard of, let’s further political and economic power for the Indians, the key to successfully integrating minorities into the mainstream. Focus on indigenous education, support federal grants and scholarships so that Indians can follow the path of other minorities. In terms of political power, Indians got the right to vote in 1924 and have held national office. Organizations like the Native American Network encourage voting. In terms of economic power, one aspect of making money the Indians have been successful at is gambling. The federal government allows the Indians to flout state laws such as Oregon’s constitutional ban against casinos; therefore the Indians have a monopoly. Are casinos a form of Affirmative Action?
Especially as religious organizations, let’s avoid the je me souviens (I remember, the Quebecois motto remembering the glorious New France of the 1760s) syndrome. Remembering past injustices only foments anger and violence and does not move anybody forward. We can’t fix past wrongs; the victims are long dead.
In conclusion, let’s not be injustice collectors, but justice seekers. The Doctrine of Discovery is an arrogant anachronism; may it die in the mothballs of history. And may the greed and exploitation that inspired it die as well.