The Doctrine of Discovery & Our Conscience

We Practice Our Faith as Uninvited Actors


by Tim Bancroft
Genesee Valley Meeting


As we of European Heritage practice our faith and work to exercise our freedom of conscience, we do so as uninvited actors on the land where we live, love and work.  Our efforts rest upon privileges acquired through the extermination and oppression of native peoples, as well as the enslavement of African peoples. Though none of us were alive when these morally heinous agendas were started, European Americans have all benefited from the privileges gained from the historical actions of our ancestors. Further, our education conveniently obscures many parts of our histories. We can wonder, how could all of this been started and justified?


The Doctrine of Discovery

Both the legal and theological justifications are found in papal public decrees called papal bulls. In 1455 by issuing Romanus Pontifex, Pope Nicholas V declared war on non-Christians, called for explorers to take possession of all land ‘discovered’ in global exploration, and authorized Portugal to ‘capture, vanquish and subdue’ all non-Christians, including placing them in ‘perpetual slavery.’ After Christopher Columbus returned announcing the discovery of lands and people across the ocean, Pope Alexander VI issued Inter Cetera in 1493 declaring that Spain could conquer the lands Columbus had ‘discovered’ and place them under the authority of Christ. Over the next few centuries these starting points led to the development of the Christian legal doctrine called the “Law of the Nations,” which asserted the divine right of Christian nations to the absolute title and ultimate authority over all newly ‘discovered’ non-Christian peoples and their land.  These justifications were eventually used by Portugal, Spain, England, France and Holland. None of these arguments answer the question: How could the new lands have been ‘discovered’ when people already lived there?


The Doctrine of Discovery was integrated into the American legal system via the legal doctrine of the “Law of Nations.” In the celebrated case, Johnson vs McIntosh (1823), Chief Justice John Marshall wrote that the Christian European nations had assumed “ultimate dominion” over the lands of America, and that upon ‘discovery’ the Indian peoples had lost their right to sovereignty as independent nations. They only retained the right to ‘occupancy’ in their lands. Chief Justice Marshall cited how the English Charter issued to explorer John Cabot recognized the Doctrine of Discovery and authorized taking possession of the land occupied by the natives who were considered ‘heathen’. From Marshall’s perspective, when the United States won its independence from Great Britain in 1776, it acquired the right of ‘dominion’ over the ‘discovered’ American land and people.


Not Just in the Past

In the City of Sherrill vs Oneida Indian Nation and Madison County vs Oneida Indian Nation, a dispute ensued over the right to tax the 1997 and 1998 Oneida Indian purchases of aboriginal lands that had not been part of their land for 200 years. The City of Sherrill and Madison County wanted the right to tax the land. In 2005, the Supreme Court re-affirmed the Doctrine of Discovery as the court reasoned that since the land was not part of the Oneida Nation for 200 years, the Oneida Nation had lost their sovereignty over the land.


In 2017. President Donald Trump allowed the Dakota Access Pipeline to go through ancient Native American burial grounds. An American business empire was authorized to demean and subjugate Native American interests in favor of business interests in keeping with the Doctrine of Discovery’s authorization to subjugate native peoples.


In closing, may each reader hold this brief history in the light of his or her conscience. May your testimony be opened to revision, so that your practice does not continue the injustices rationalized by the Doctrine of Discovery. May you act on inner promptings to walk with, and be in solidarity with, our Native American brothers and sisters, so that the injustices authorized under the Doctrine of Discovery can be worked through and transformed in Mutual Dialogue toward Right Relationship.