The Doctrine of Discovery- A Buried Apology and an Empty Chair

Guest Commentary


Editor’s Note: This Part I of a two-part guest commentary. Part II will be published on Sunday, January 4, 2014.

Picture a chair, an empty chair. There are dozens, even hundreds, of them sitting on the stage behind the podium. At the microphone is a Native American elder. Hurting, trembling, shaking, but standing. Full of resolve. Sharing a story of the horrors of the abuse, neglect and trauma, experienced as a young child at an Indian boarding school. In front of this elder are hundreds, even thousands, of people. Native Americans, with their heads bowed in grief, sorrow, even panic, as their own memories of similar stories are triggered. African Americans, sitting silently, staring at the ground, as they recall stories of the trauma their ancestors endured as slaves, the free labor force of an emerging nations. Americans of European descent, sitting uncomfortably, even squirming. Their eyes are wide open and their hearts are pounding as they hear stories of a history they had spent a lifetime denying existed.

Mark Charles

Mark Charles

Over the meal, even though the seating is open, the tables are mostly segregated and the room is unusually quiet. Food is eaten, napkins are folded, the garbage is dumped, as everyone solemnly returns to the room where more stories of a similar nature are shared.

This process is repeated the next day, and the next. Some of the voices are angry, some are broken, some are resentful, but a few are hopeful.

As the days progress and more and more stories are shared, subtle changes begin to take place. The room is opened up to create more space. The story tellers are standing taller. The audience is beginning to make eye contact. The lunch and dinner tables are noticeably less segregated. There is more conversation. And on the stage behind the podium, a few of the empty chairs are occupied.

A Buried Apology to Native Peoples of the United States: 
December 19, 2014 was the 5th anniversary of an apology given by the US Congress and the President of the United States on behalf of the citizens of the United States to the Indigenous peoples of this land.  Unfortunately, this apology received very little, if any, press over the past half-decade. It was inserted by Senator Sam Brownback (KS) into House Resolution 3326, the 2010 Department of Defense Appropriations Act and buried on page 45 in sub-section 8113.

This seven bullet point apology contained no reference to any specific tribe, treaty or injustice and ended with a disclaimer. It was inserted into this bill because Senator Brownback had tried unsuccessfully for about 2 years to get an apology into a stand-alone bill. But that bill never made it out of committee. So he inserted it into an appropriations act after a colleague informed him that was how Congress historically passed Indian Treaties. They found that there was less likely to be opposition when the treaties were a part of large appropriation bills.

The bill passed and went to President Obama’s desk to be signed on December 19, 2009. Originally the bill signing was supposed to be public, but at the last minute reporters sitting in the room were told the signing would be closed to the press. Later in the day the White House released a press release regarding the bill, but no mention was made of the apology contained within it.

You may be wondering how this could be. How could a bill containing an apology from the United States Congress to Native Americans for centuries of injustice be buried so deep and not make any public waves in either political circles or in the media?

I believe it is because of the history this apology is attempting to address. It is a history that is not taught in schools. A history that our leaders don’t know well, but are terrified is true. And a history that most citizens are too ashamed to learn even exists.  It is a history that goes back centuries and affects the very foundations of this nation.

15th Century – Doctrine of Discovery: 
In 1452, Pope Nicholas V wrote the following words in a Papal Bull:
“…invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens and pagans whatsoever, and other enemies of Christ wheresoever placed, and the kingdoms, dukedoms, principalities, dominions, possessions, and all movable and immovable goods whatsoever held and possessed by them and to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery, and to apply and appropriate to himself and his successors the kingdoms, dukedoms, counties, principalities, dominions, possessions, and goods, and to convert them to his and their use and profit”

This Bull was the first in a series of Papal Bulls written in the 15th century that became known as the Doctrine of Discovery. Essentially, the Doctrine of Discovery was the Church in Europe saying to the Nations of Europe, “whatever land you find that are not ruled by Christian Rulers, those people are less than human and the lands are yours for the taking.”

It was the Doctrine of Discovery that allowed European Nations to colonize Africa and enslave the African people. It was also the Doctrine of Discovery that allowed Christopher Columbus to get lost at sea, land in a “New World” inhabited by millions, and claim to have “discovered” it. Because his doctrine informed him that we, the indigenous peoples, were less than human, and therefore the land was empty.

The Doctrine of Discovery is a systemically racist doctrine.

Mark Charles (Navajo) is the founder and director of 5 Small Loaves. He and wife reside in Fort Defiance, Arizona on the Navajo Indian Reservation.

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