More on the DOD–Doctrine of Discovery

Katy Nesbit, writer and now cleric at the local Episcopal church, dropped a book off recently, just a few days after the Vatican rescinded its Doctrine of Discovery. I had not thought much about next steps, about how we might unravel what centuries of this obscure but powerful doctrine has meant and still means to indigenous peoples across the world.

The book she brought, The Land Is Not Empty: Following Jesus in Dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery, by Sarah Augustine, sat on my desk for a day or two, but, reading the blurbs and the author bio on the back soon had me opening it. Augustine is a Native with Navajo heritage, but her father was one of those “adopted out” Natives in the assimilation games White America played from the earliest days until at least the 1950s. Maybe we are still playing them.

Augustine is a Christian, loosely affiliated with the Mennonites. Her story of the DOD starts in Suriname, a small, little known South American country on the northeast—Atlantic—coast. It was a Dutch colony, and still lists Dutch as its official language and boasts a “melting pot” population on its webpage. The population is just over 600,000.

I don’t know how many of the 600,000 are not part of the melting pot, indigenous peoples with their own languages and lifeways. But Sarah Alexander and her husband went there years ago to work among the Wayana people, one of the indigenous tribes of Suriname. They went because the Wayana are being destroyed by mercury poisoning, a by-product of large-scale gold mining. Sara and her husband thought they could help by bringing attention to the continued poisoning of a people by bringing it to the attention of the world. They would use World Health, the United Nations, the World Bank—any large international organization that had ethics as part of its mission.

And they were flummoxed by the Doctrine of Discovery. The indigenous people of Suriname—and of nations around the world—do not “own” their land. Conquering—“discovering”— Christian nations gained immediate ownership and control of indigenous lands across the world on their arrival, if the lands were “empty” of Christians. Thus, Wayana lands are Suriname government lands, and the government of Suriname has the legal right to lease them to gold mining companies as it will. Or other mining companies or timber companies or whatever.

Sarah began working with the World Council of Churches, and through them contacted various international organizations that advocate good environmental practices and fair dealings with indigenous peoples. No deal. The government of Suriname is the sovereign, the owner of the land, the decision maker, and as long as it is complying with the general rules of the international road, these good organizations can have no sway in their affairs. Sometimes these organizations monitor mining and other resource extraction processes, but beyond publicizing findings and public advocacy, they remain stymied.

In other words, what the Vatican did in rescinding “Discovery” does not undo what has been done—and does not stop its continuing impact on indigenous peoples and the land and waters around the world.

In our country, Discovery was brought into National law with the Marshall Supreme Court decisions of the 1820s and 30s. According to Marshall, the United States became a successor nation and acquired its power over indigenous lands from Great Britain, the English having picked up Discovery from the Pope and the Church. Indigenous people “having lost their rights to complete sovereignty as independent nations” retained only “limited sovereignty” and the right to “occupy” their lands. The Marshall decisions form the basis of modern US Indian Law.

In the US as in Suriname, public lands—even those vital to the traditional practices and lifeways of Tribal peoples—are under the “dominion” of the US Government. And the US Government, responsible for what it sees as the public good, can lease oil lands in Alaska, or promote copper mining in Arizona nominally on Forest Service lands. And, I would imagine, the same reasoning supports decisions about pipelines and water courses across the country.

One wishes it was as simple as the stacking game Jenga, and that taking out the Doctrine of Discovery piece at the bottom would shake the entire structure and cause a rework of everything. That is probably too much to ask, but I can see the indigenous “water protectors” at the Dakota Access Pipeline jostling that bottom piece of Jenga, threatening to pull it away unless the US government stops efforts to bury the pipeline under a piece of Lake Oahe in South Dakota.

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  1. When I “discovered” the Doctrine of Discovery several years ago, it was at a workshop put on by the local Unitarian-Universalist church, whose denominational authority had formally repudiated the DoD, and local churches were studying the various documents related to it. It was clear to me, in fact all of us, that the documents were the biggest pieces of jingoistic, supremacist, imperialistic hokum every produced by human beings. It is easy to see how the documents and thinking behind it have given rise (or give expression to) European imperialism and exploitation of non-European lands and peoples, notions of white (Christian) supremacy, capitalism and industrialism with the concomitant destruction of natural systems worldwide. It is an unquestioned component of the Modernist enterprise since the 1500s, leading into the Enlightenment, Scientific Discovery, and the Industrial Revolution. In essence, the earth became completely desacralized as being a place to encounter the Divine (a process now relegated to officially sanctioned holy places and the specific rituals such as baptism and the Eucharist). Being desacralized, the earth became an inert lump of resources for those with the power and means to exploit. The presumptions behind the Doctrine of Discovery have overtaken the whole world, with very few indigenous communities able to resist or act alternatively. Almost every major crisis facing the world today can find roots in its articulations. It would be illuminating to have a study group here explore its labyrinthine tentacles in contemporary society.

  2. Thanks Craig

    As the “Doctrine” is now officially repudiated by the church, it is time to examine the hangovers. Susan is on the Yakima Rez–so maybe we could get her down to lead a discussion on meanings for the Plateau tribes. Your comments linking ohter things are right on the mark. I just finisehd the book Do you want a look?

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