The Stealing of Oak Flat & the Trauma of the Doctrine of Discovery

Apache Rally at US Capitol on Wednesday

Apache Rally at US Capitol on Wednesday – Photo by Mark Charles

Guest Commentary

On December 19, 2014 House Resolution 3979, the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act was signed into law. The word “Apache” appears 29 times throughout the pages of this law. Most frequently used to refer to Apache helicopters. However, on page 442 the term “Apache” refers to something that has absolutely nothing to do with helicopters. On page 442, Section 3003 is titled “Southeast Arizona land exchange and conservation” and there the word Apache is used in reference to sacred Apache lands.

The Apache people have worked successfully for years to keep these sacred lands off limits to mining companies. But a last minute rider buried in this massive, must pass, Defense bill by Arizona Senators McCain and Flake changed that. Through this law, Resolution Copper, whose parent company’s affiliates are campaign contributors to Senator John McCain, was given Apache lands for the purpose of mining.

How did this happen?

What gives the United State senators from a state that is barely 100 years old the right to give away lands which the Apache people have held sacred for centuries?

That ‘right’ is taken from another piece of buried history, known as the Doctrine of Discovery. The Doctrine of Discovery is a series of Papal Bulls written in the 15th century that is essentially the church in Europe saying to the nations of Europe “where ever you go, whatever lands you find not ruled by Christian rulers, those people are less than human and the land is yours for the taking.” It was the Doctrine of Discovery that allowed European Nations to colonize the continent of 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 told him that we were not people and, therefore, this land was empty.

Over the years the Doctrine of Discovery has become embedded into the very fabric of our nation. In 1823 the United States Supreme Court referenced the Doctrine of Discovery in the case Johnson vs. M’Intosh. Two men of European descent were in litigation over a piece of land. One party purchased it from a native tribe and the other party purchased it from the government and they wanted to know who owned it. In reviewing the case the Supreme Court essentially stated that based on the Doctrine of Discovery native people only have the right of occupancy to the land while Europeans have the right of Discovery and therefore true title to the land. This case became part of Supreme Court case precedent regarding land titles and was referenced by the court as recently as 2005.

So it should not surprise anyone that in 2014 the Congress of this young nation felt no qualms about passing a bill giving away lands held sacred by the Apache people to a mining company from two foreign colonial countries: The United Kingdom and Australia.

How often does this happen?
While I do not make it a practice to read every Defense Department Appropriations bill passed by our Congress, I am aware of at least one other rider inserted into such a bill. On December 19, 2009, Congress passed House Resolution 3326, the 2010 Department of Defense Appropriations Act. Buried on page 45 of this 67 page bill, Section 8113 is titled “Apology to Native Peoples of the United States.” What follows is a seven bullet point apology that mentions no specific tribe, no specific treaty and no specific injustice. It essentially says; native people had some nice land, US citizens didn’t take it very politely, we’re sorry for some of that history, but that’s in the past so let’s just call it all of our lands and take care of it together. And then it ends with a disclaimer stating that nothing in this section is legally binding.

To date this apology has not been announced, publicized or read by the White House or by Congress.

But on December 19, 2012 over 150 people from throughout the country gathered in front of the US Capitol to host a public reading of this bill and the apology contained therein.

Why are these actions buried?

That answer is simple. Trauma.

The United States of America has built its reputation on being a freedom loving nation who proclaims “all men are created equal.” So when they act in a way that is legal by their standards but in complete contrast to their image, it is traumatic. It is traumatizing to realize that maintaining the status quo requires perpetuating the dehumanizing foundations of our nation. It is embarrassing and painful to publicly admit that our present day leaders must participate in the racist systems that the founding fathers put in place as they built their biased version of a “more perfect union.” So instead, Congress buries their actions and hides their words deep within their own bureaucracy in an effort to save face and cover their shame.

What do we do?

I often tell people that being Native American and living in the United States, it feels like our indigenous peoples are an old grandmother who lives in a large and very beautiful house. Years ago, some people came into our house and they locked us upstairs in the bedroom. Today, our house is full of people. They are sitting on our furniture. They are eating our food. They are having a party in our house. They have since unlocked the door to our bedroom but it is much later and we are tired, old, weak and sick; so we can’t or we don’t come out. But the thing that is the most hurtful and that causes us the most pain, is that virtually no one from this party ever comes upstairs, acknowledges our presence, sits down next to us on the bed, takes our hand, and simply says, “Thank you. Thank you for letting us be in your house.”

Mark Charles

Mark Charles

To everyone who showed up in Washington DC. To everyone who supported #ApacheStronghold along their journey. To everyone who signed the petitions exposing the actions of our Congress. To everyone who is going to call their congressional representative and ask them to support House Resolution 2811, returning Oak Flat to the Apache people…

We want to say; “We’re proud of you.”

We thank you and are proud of you for standing with us, the indigenous hosts of this land as we help our congressional leaders and the broader nation deal with the trauma that comes from being confronted with the dehumanizing declarations they’ve made, the racist laws they’ve passed and the unjust actions they’ve buried.
George Erasmus, an Aboriginal leader once said, “Where common memory is lacking, where people do not share in the same past, there can be no real community. Where community is to be formed, common memory must be created.”

Taking message to Capitol Hill - Photo by Mark Charles

Taking message to Capitol Hill – Photo by Mark Charles

I think this quote gets to the heart of our nation’s challenges regarding race. Much of the true history of our nation has been buried, and, therefore, we struggle greatly to have real community. But when standing together, when refusing to allow our leaders to bury their injustices, when dealing head on with the trauma that plagues our nation, when working together to create a common memory, we are planting the seeds to begin to change that.

I originally wrote the above remarks to be read at the Apache Stronghold rally and protest in DC on July 22, 2015. However due to time restraints I was asked to pair my remarks down to 2 minutes.  So I did not have the opportunity to speak these remarks at the event, but I still wanted to share them because I am convinced that unless our nation acknowledges and deals with the Doctrine of Discovery, injustices like the stealing of Oak Flat will continue to occur.

To read the remarks I did present click HERERemarks shared by Mark Charles at #ApacheStronghold rally on Capitol Hill in Washington DC

In my blog article “The Doctrine of Discovery- A Buried Apology and an Empty Chair” I educate about the Doctrine of Discovery and propose the idea for a “Truth Commission,” a series of national conferences beginning in Washington DC in December of 2016. These conferences would attempt to create a common memory through educating people on the Doctrine of Discovery and teaching an accurate history of the United States of America. It would also provide a platform for survivors of Indian boarding schools to share the stories of their experiences.

For more information you can visit my website (, follow me on TwitterFacebookYouTube orInstagram (user name wirelesshogan) or subscribe to the “Truth Commission” email list.

Mark Charles (Navajo) is a regular contributor to Native News Online.


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