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In a landmark statement made today, the Vatican formally repudiated a centuries-old theory of church decrees that endorsed the forceful seizing of Native lands and near-total destruction of Indigenous peoples.

The decrees, or “papal bulls,” underpin “The Doctrine of Discovery,” a legal concept created in a 1823 U.S. Supreme Court decision that justified the forceful seizing of Native land by European colonizers under the guise that colonizers “discovered” the land. 

In a joint statement issued by the Vatican’s development and education departments, the Catholic Church repudiated “those concepts that fail to recognize the inherent human rights of Indigenous peoples, including what has become known as the legal and political ‘doctrine of discovery.’”

The Doctrine of Discovery “is not a part of the teaching of the Catholic Church,” according to the statement, which acknowledges the sufferings of Indigenous people “due to the expropriation of their lands … as well as the policies of forced assimilation, promoted by the governmental authorities of the time, intended to eliminate their indigenous cultures.”

The statement comes after decades of advocacy from Indigenous communities for the church to formally retract the numerous papal bulls that backed the expansion of Christianity at the cost of Native land and lives. 

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Notably, the Catholic church played a major role in what is now known as the “Boarding School Era,” a period between 1869 and the 1960s in which hundreds of thousands of Native children across the U.S. and Canada were forcibly removed from their homes to attend residential boarding schools. The schools were operated by the Federal government and, often, the Catholic Church. Children at the schools often suffered horrific physical and sexual abuse and neglect. A federal probe led by Secretary of Interior Deb Haalad has reported more than 500 students died at the schools. 

During the Pope's 2022 official visit to Canada, he issued an official apology to the First Nations Peoples for the  Catholic Church’s role in Canada’s “catastrophic” policy of Indigenous residential schools.

In a statement Thursday afternoon, the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition called the decision "the right one" but criticized the Church for failing to take accountability.  

“While the Vatican’s decision to renounce the Doctrine of Discovery is the right one, it downplays the Church’s role and accountability for the harm it has caused to Native peoples. It does not change the fact that the Church’s views gave permission to colonizers to take Native lands and assimilate Native peoples," NABS CEO Deb Parker (Tulalip) said in a statement. “We demand more from the Catholic Church. We demand more transparency, including access to Indian boarding school documents, which they have refused to provide. We demand that the Church returns lands to the Tribal Nations in which it operated Indian boarding schools. We demand that the Church supports the Truth and Healing Bill, which would establish a federal commission and conduct a full inquiry into the assimilative policies of U.S. Indian boarding schools."

The National Congress of American Indians issued a statement late Thursday: "The National Congress of American Indians commends Pope Francis and the Catholic Church for finally repudiating the dehumanizing Doctrine of Discovery and acknowledging what Indigenous peoples have known all along—that the Doctrine ‘did not adequately reflect the equal dignity and rights of Indigenous peoples'. It is no secret that many governments -- including the United States -- have relied on this doctrine to justify the mistreatment of Indigenous peoples and the taking of our lands.

"It is our sincere hope that today’s announcement is more than mere words, but rather is the beginning of a full acknowledgement of the history of oppression and a full accounting of the legacies of colonialism—not just by the Roman Catholic Church, but by all the world governments that have used racism, prejudice and religious authority to not only justify past inequalities, but to allow, fuel, and perpetuate the institutionalization of those inequalities that continue to this very day."

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story was updated with statements from the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition and the National Congress of American Indians. 

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