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Opinion.  Thursday was a historic news day for Native Americans.  

While most of the country — perhaps the world — was focused on news about the first-ever indictment of a former President of the United States, many in Indian Country were more concerned with a statement from an obscure, academic-sounding department of the Vatican. 

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The joint statement of the Dicasteries for Culture and Education and for Promoting Integral Human Development on the “Doctrine of Discovery” came early Thursday in Michigan. The statement was historic because it repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery, which for almost 500 years provided the basis for Europeans nations to justify and legitimize their taking of Indigenous lands throughout the world, including in the Americas, Africa, and Australia. 

Scholars have argued that the doctrine originated in a series of papal bulls—or decrees—that granted permission to colonial powers such as Spain and Portugal to seize lands in the “New World” — providing the people living on the lands were not Christians. 

Thursday’s statement cites three papal bulls: the Bulls Dum Diversas (1452), Romanus Pontifex (1455) and Inter Caetera (1493). The latter decreed in 1493, one year after Columbus first arrived in what are now known as the Americas.

The historic statement was welcomed news until you got past the headline and began to read the 9-point statement. Upon examination, the statement lacks real teeth in that the Vatican fails to accept accountability and admit its sins for a doctrine set forth in the name of Christianity or, more specifically, the Catholic Church. 

Some Native American friends who are well-versed on the topic compared the repudiation to Pope Francis’ apology last year in Canada for the horrific deeds committed against innocent Indigenous students in residential schools. In that apology, Francis blamed individuals versus the Catholic Church. Similarly, Thursday’s statement denied that doctrine was never fully sanctioned by the Church. 

“In what could have been a groundbreaking and historic repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery, the Vatican instead released a series of political statements that sought to rewrite history, shield the Catholic Church from legal liability and shift the blame for the Doctrine of Discovery to governmental and colonial powers,” Mark Charles, author of Unsettling Truths: The Ongoing, Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery, said to Native News Online.

Two-thirds into the document, the sixth point reads: “The ‘doctrine of discovery’ is not part of the teaching of the Catholic Church. Historical research clearly demonstrates that the papal documents in question, written in a specific historical period and linked to political questions, have never been considered expressions of the Catholic faith.”

While the Catholic Church still chooses to deny their sins, the truth is that governments around the world have long justified their taking of the Indigenous lands because of the doctrine’s Christian authorship. 

The government of the United States was heavily influenced by the doctrine in 1823, when the U.S. Supreme Court used it as the basis for its ruling that Indigenous people had only the rights of occupancy, not ownership, over lands on which they dwelled. This made way for non-Natives to seize Native lands across the country and commit acts of genocide that led to the near annihilation of our ancestors.  

As recently as 2005, the Doctrine of Discovery was used by the Supreme Court to justify limiting the expansion of the Oneida Nation in the Sherrill v. Oneida Nation of New York case when Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg cited it in the majority opinion she crafted. The Court, she wrote, must prevent “the Tribe from rekindling the embers of sovereignty that long ago grew cold.” 

It’s unfortunate that Justice Ginsburg failed to recognize that the Doctrine of Discovery was created to extinguish our sovereignty — and millions of our ancestors. Even today, we still live with the consequences of those decrees written a half-millennia ago. But I’m also reminded that the embers of some fires can burn for months or even years.  

I am grateful to the Creator that some of our ancestors survived so that we are still here as tribal nations, in spite of the sins of the Catholic Church. 

Thayék gde nwéndëmen - We are all related.

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About The Author
Levi Rickert
Author: Levi RickertEmail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Levi "Calm Before the Storm" Rickert (Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation) is the founder, publisher and editor of Native News Online. Rickert was awarded Best Column 2021 Native Media Award for the print/online category by the Native American Journalists Association. He serves on the advisory board of the Multicultural Media Correspondents Association. He can be reached at [email protected].