[Individual articles from the Winter 2018 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]
As European settlers took more and more land, their governments restricted Indigenous peoples to increasingly smaller areas. Settler governments enacted laws to confine Indigenous movement to reservations or reserves.
The Doctrine of Discovery is a philosophical and legal framework dating back to papal bulls of the fifteenth century that provided theological justification and a legal basis for Christian governments to invade and seize Indigenous lands and dominate Indigenous peoples. Rooted in colonialism, capitalism, patriarchy and white supremacy, the Doctrine of Discovery imagined Indigenous lands to be terra nullius, meaning “land belonging to no one.” The patterns of oppression that continue to dispossess Indigenous peoples of their lands today are rooted in those papal bulls and perpetuated in numerous historical documents such as Royal Charters and U.S. Supreme Court rulings as recent as 2005.
This political and legal framework, rooted in Christian theological justifications, paved the way for colonial expansion in contemporary Canada and the United States in the name of Christ. As European settlers took more and more land, their governments restricted Indigenous peoples to increasingly smaller areas. Settler governments enacted laws to confine Indigenous movement to reservations or reserves. At the same time, these governments sought to forcibly assimilate Indigenous peoples to European Christian society: so, for example, in both Canada and the U.S., governments took Indigenous young children from their families and placed them in Christian-run boarding schools. In the United States, the vision for these schools was summarized by the stark phrase, “Kill the Indian, Save the Man.”
The Doctrine of Discovery framework has had a myriad of death-dealing ramifications for Indigenous peoples around the globe, providing justifications for the theft of Indigenous land and the suppression of Indigenous cultures. Yet even in the face of ongoing legacies of dispossession, Indigenous communities, joined by settler allies, seek to dismantle the Doctrine of Discovery. In Canada, for example, First Nations peoples have led the push for the Canadian government to pass parliamentary bill C-262 which would require the Canadian government to harmonize its laws with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. In the United States, Indigenous determination to protect water and earth from oil pipeline construction at Standing Rock in Oceti Sakowin (Dakota, Lakota, Nakota) territory in present-day North Dakota called attention to the ongoing dispossession of Indigenous peoples. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission on Indian Residential Schools in Canada, meanwhile, has pressed Canadians to ask what justice and a future of reconciliation and right relationship might look like in the wake of the devastation to Indigenous families and communities wrought by residential schools. In this issue of Intersections, Indigenous and settler authors critically examine the harms perpetrated by the Doctrine of Discovery framework. Their reflections do not confine themselves to analysis, however, but push beyond it, charting paths forward on the journey of overcoming the Doctrine of Discovery.
Erica Littlewolf works with the Indigenous Visioning Circle of MCC Central States. Pam Peters-Pries is the Associate Program Director at MCC Canada.
The Dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery Coalition, a grassroots Anabaptist movement, has a wealth of information about the Doctrine of Discovery at www.dofdmenno.org.