A 500 year-old fiction

Years ago, when I knew much less of the Indian story in the Pacific Northwest, I had an informal Nez Perce history class here at the Josephy Center. A dozen of us were on the balcony one day when Tamastslikt director Bobbie Conner and her mother came in the door. I shouted down that we were talking about the Stephens Treaties of 1855. Bobbie shouted back that any discussion of Indian treaties had to begin with the Doctrine of Discovery.

Recently, when the Pope visited First Nation people in Canada, he heard them shout that they want the Doctrine of Discovery rescinded.

What is this doctrine that tribal people know well, but seems to have escaped most North American school curriculums? And how does it apply to the US government and the many tribes renewing themselves today?

The Papal Bull, “Inter Caetera,” was issued by Pope Alexander VI on May 4, 1493. It had two parts, the first setting up a demarcation line and giving Spain “exclusive rights” to lands “discovered” by Columbus the preceding year.

The second part is what landed on colonized lands everywhere, especially in the Americas. Landed—and still with us after 500 years. I quote from the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History:

“The Bull stated that any land not inhabited by Christians was available to be ‘discovered,’ claimed, and exploited by Christian rulers and declared that ‘the Catholic faith and the Christian religion be exalted and be everywhere increased and spread, that the health of souls be cared for and that barbarous nations be overthrown and brought to the faith itself.’ This ‘Doctrine of Discovery’ became the basis of all European claims in the Americas as well as the foundation for the United States’ western expansion.”

In the United States, the Marshall decisions of the 1820s and 1830s, which are the basis of Indian Law in the country to this day, leaned heavily on the Doctrine of Discovery:

“In the US Supreme Court in the 1823 case Johnson v. McIntosh, Chief Justice John Marshall’s opinion in the unanimous decision held ‘that the principle of discovery gave European nations an absolute right to New World lands.’ In essence, American Indians had only a right of occupancy, which could be abolished.”

I can find no easy modern-day parallel for the situation that Pope Alexander set out to resolve in 1493. Maybe Antarctica, which is now governed by “The Antarctic Treaty,” signed in 1959 by 12 countries who had scientists in and around Antarctica at the time. In 2009 the United Nations General Assembly voted to abide by this treaty, which dedicates the continent to “peace and science.”

I’m sure that there were some who wanted Antarctica for themselves, but with no church or religion world dominant, this secular, peaceful compromise was reached and has held sway for over 60 years.

The age of imperialism and colonization is past, and Native revival is surging and gaining speed—and ground—in the US and Canada. I’d suggest to the good Pope that it is time for the 500-year-old fiction that one nation can conquer and own other lands on the basis of religious superiority be retired to history’s archives. If decades and centuries of national, canon, and international law need to be revised, so be it.

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