Doctrine Of Discovery : Indigenous Genocide
When Christopher Columbus first set foot on the white sands of Guanahani island, he performed a ceremony to “take possession” of the land for the king and queen of Spain, acting under the international laws of Western Christendom. Although the story of Columbus’ “discovery” has taken on mythological proportions in most of the Western world, few people are aware that his act of “possession” was based on a religious doctrine now known in history as the Doctrine of Discovery. Even fewer people realize that today – five centuries later – the United States government still uses this archaic Judeo-Christian doctrine to deny the rights of Native American Indians.
The Doctrine of Discovery is a series of papal bulls, or decrees, which gave Christian explorers the right to lay claim to any land that was not inhabited by Christians and was available to be “discovered.” If its inhabitants could be converted, they might be spared. If not, they could be enslaved or killed.
It seems astonishing that a country founded upon the ideal of “life, liberty, and property” could move from a policy of “good faith” toward the Native Americans to one of complete domination in the space of one generation. In order to understand how such a contradiction could occur, it is necessary to go back in time almost seven centuries before the American Revolution.
In 1095, at the beginning of the Crusades, Pope Urban II issued an edict-the Papal Bull Terra Nullius (meaning empty land). It gave the kings and princes of Europe the right to “discover” or claim land in non-Christian areas. This policy was extended in 1452 when Pope Nicholas V issued the bull Romanus Pontifex, declaring war against all non-Christians throughout the world and authorizing the conquest of their nations and territories. These edicts treated non-Christians as uncivilized and subhuman, and therefore without rights to any land or nation. Christian leaders claimed a God-given right to take control of all lands and used this idea to justify war, colonization, and even slavery.
By the time Christopher Columbus set sail in 1492, this Doctrine of Discovery was a well-established idea in the Christian world. When he reached the Americas, Columbus performed a ceremony to “take possession” of all lands “discovered,” meaning all territory not occupied by Christians. Upon his return to Europe in 1493, Pope Alexander VI issued the bull Inter Cetera, granting Spain the right to conquer the lands that Columbus had already “discovered” and all lands that it might come upon in the future. This decree also expressed the Pope’s wish to convert the natives of these lands to Catholicism in order to strengthen the “Christian Empire.”
In 1573 Pope Paul II issued the papal bull Sublimis Deus, which denounced the idea that Native Americans “should be treated like irrational animals and used exclusively for our profit and our service,” and Pope Urban VIII (1623-1644) formally excommunicated anyone still holding Indian slaves. By this time, however, the Doctrine of Discovery was deeply rooted and led nonetheless to the conquest of non-Christian lands and people in every corner of the world. Although the U.S. was founded on freedom from such tyranny, the idea that white people and Christians had certain divine rights was nevertheless ingrained in the young nation’s policies.
In 1823, the Doctrine of Discovery was written into U.S. law as a way to deny land rights to Native Americans in the Supreme Court case, Johnson v. McIntosh. It is ironic that the case did not directly involve any Native Americans since the decision stripped them of all rights to their independence. In 1775, Thomas Johnson and a group of British investors bought a tract of land from the Piankeshaw Indians. During the Revolutionary War, this land was taken from the British and became part of the U.S. in the “County of Illinois.” In 1818, the U.S. government sold part of the land to William McIntosh, a citizen of Illinois. This prompted Joshua Johnson, the heir to one of the original buyers, to claim the land through a lawsuit (which he later lost).
In a unanimous decision, Chief Justice John Marshall wrote that the Christian European nations had assumed complete control over the lands of America during the “Age of Discovery.” Upon winning independence in 1776, he noted, the U.S. inherited authority over these lands from Great Britain, “not withstanding the occupancy of the natives, who were heathens…” According to the ruling, American Indians did not have any rights as independent nations, but only as tenants or residents of U.S. land. For Joshua Johnson, this meant that the original sale of land by the Piankeshaws was invalid because they were not the lawful owners. For Native Americans, this decision foreshadowed the Trail of Tears and a hundred years of forced removal and violence. Despite recent efforts to have the case repealed as a symbol of good will, Johnson v. McIntosh has never been overruled and remains good law.
In 1845, a democratic leader and prominent editor named John L. O’Sullivan gave the Doctrine of Discovery a uniquely American flavor when he coined the term Manifest Destiny to defend U.S. expansion and claims to new territory:
“…. the right of our manifest destiny to over spread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty… is right such as that of the tree to the space of air and the earth suitable for the full expansion of its principle and destiny of growth.”
The idea of Manifest Destiny was publicized in newspapers and debated by politicians. It furthered the sense among U.S. citizens of an inevitable or natural right to expand the nation and to spread “freedom and democracy” (though only to those deemed capable of self-government, which certainly did not include Blacks or Native Americans).
Whether called the Doctrine of Discovery or Manifest Destiny, the principles that stimulated U.S. thirst for land have been disastrous for Native Americans, African Americans, Mexicans, and many others both in North America and abroad who lost life, liberty and property as the result of U.S. expansionism. The history of Christian law helps us to understand how our leaders-many considered heroes and role models today-undertook monstrous acts in the name of liberty. This insight into the prevailing ideas of the day, however, does not excuse their behavior. Some may have truly been misled by the ideals of Christian discovery, but others acted knowingly out of self-interest, greed and bigotry. Even as far back as Columbus, however, there were religious and political leaders, as well as ordinary citizens, who knew better and worked against racism, colonization and slavery.
When the Indian Removal Act of 1830 came up for debate in Congress, for example, New Jersey Senator Theodore Frelinghuysen, a strong believer in Christian compassion, led a bold attack with a six-hour speech that extended over three days. Frelinghuysen predicted terrible suffering and therefore argued to uphold the independence of the Cherokee Nation. Many other members of Congress, including Tennessean Davy Crockett, fought against the Act. Though it passed in both houses, 47% of Congress (116 of 246 members) voted in opposition to the bill.
It is tempting to view the problems of the past as ancient history-long resolved and no longer relevant to our lives. The effects of manifest destiny, however, continue today. American Indian Nations are still in court over land disputes, and countless native people suffer from extreme poverty and other social problems as a result of past policies. September 11th and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have ignited age-old debates about U.S. objectives. Though the public discourse no longer includes terms such as “expansion,” “discovery,” and “destiny,” discussions about globalization, preemptive war, and the responsibilities of the world’s only “superpower” echo familiar themes. It is perhaps fitting that this dialogue ensues as the country commemorates the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark expedition, or Corps of Discovery, which paved the way for U.S. expansion. The anniversary presents an important opportunity to pay tribute to the victims and survivors of Indian genocide, to learn about contemporary native culture and issues, and to work against prejudice and discrimination in local communities.