[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.]
Focus on the Doctrine of Discovery? Really? Stirling Avenue Mennonite Church, located on the Haldimand Tract in Kitchener, Ontario, has journeyed for several years in building relationships with our Indigenous neighbours on the nearby Six Nations reservation. We were motivated after hearing searing stories of residential school harms and becoming aware of Indigenous land claims. A Stirling delegation traveled to Ottawa for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) closing events in spring 2015. Another delegation participated in an ecumenical retreat at Six Nations that fall to talk about how we as settler Christians and Indigenous peoples (both Christian and traditional) could live out the TRC Calls to Action on the Haldimand Tract. Arising out of that, we formed our own working group to lead our mid-sized congregation in working on some of the TRC’s 94 Calls to Action—particularly those addressed to churches.
Call to Action #49 asks all religious denominations to “repudiate concepts used to justify European sovereignty over Indigenous lands and peoples, such as the Doctrine of Discovery and terra nullius.” While we agreed the concepts of the Doctrine of Discovery (DoD) were reprehensible, we questioned whether focusing on “outdated” documents should be a priority in our congregation’s reconciliation journey. We concluded that studying and repudiating the DoD as a congregation was a key piece of the journey towards truth and reconciliation. This article describes our journey with the DoD that has created a platform for addressing colonialism in partnership with our Indigenous neighbours.
Decolonizing our hearts, our churches and our country from the ravages of the Doctrine of Discovery is not something we can ever check off a list. It is a generations-long journey of relationship with God, ourselves, the land and our Indigenous neighbours.
Why should we look backwards, learning about the DoD, rather than focus on the future? If the DoD was a priority for the Indigenous voices who wrote the TRC Calls to Action, we realized it needed to be a priority for us. We planned two adult education classes on the DoD in April 2016. At the same time, we considered sponsoring a resolution to the Mennonite Church Canada delegate assembly repudiating the DoD. For several months, our TRC working group focused primarily on the DoD. As we studied, we learned that the DoD forms the basis of much of Canada’s legal system for Indigenous peoples.
Two adult education classes with biblical scholar Derek Suderman allowed the packed room of participants to study the documentary foundation of the DoD: the papal bulls Dum Diversas (1452) and Romanus Pontifex (1454). Issued half a century before Europeans arrived on North America, the papal bulls speak of subjugating the enemies of Christ, namely Saracens (Muslims), giving full and free authority to invade, capture, vanquish and reduce these enemies to perpetual slavery. Used first in Africa, this same logic gave license to settle North America. The land was considered empty (terra nullius) because there were no Christians in it. We also examined how the so-called Royal Psalms (such as Psalm 2:8-9), when taken out of context from the broader biblical narrative of Christ’s love for all people, could be used to justify the theology of conquest enshrined in the DoD.
The active congregational involvement in these classes, as well as strong engagement around Indigenous issues more broadly, empowered our church council to co-sponsor the Mennonite Church Canada delegate assembly resolution. After that resolution passed in July 2016, our focus on the DoD ended, but the insights we gained undergird our ongoing journey. What does it mean for us to continue to decolonize our church and ourselves? We continue to build relationships with our Indigenous neighbours, who help us see this path towards reconciliation.
In November 2016, we engaged the full congregation in a KAIROS Blanket Exercise. The blanket exercise is a participatory teaching tool to examine the historical and contemporary relationship between Canada’s Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in which participants stand on blankets placed on the floor symbolizing Indigenous land, with blankets progressively removed and participants either forced off blankets or confined to ever smaller spaces to represent European colonization and its impact on Indigenous peoples. We incorporated it into our worship service so the maximum number of people could be involved, and continued with time afterward to debrief the powerful experience. The blanket exercise deepened our journey with the DoD. As we walked through Canadian history from an Indigenous perspective, we witnessed the scourge of colonialism as our territory disappeared one blanket at a time, smallpox decimated our people and residential schools took our children.
In January 2017, we continued our journey of decolonizing ourselves and our church with a four-week worship and education series entitled, “Covenants with God, Land, and Our Indigenous Hosts.” We looked at foundational covenants to our faith, such as God’s rainbow covenant with Noah, as well as foundational covenants with our Indigenous brothers and sisters, like the Two Row Wampum and the Covenant Chain of Friendship. Indigenous elder Myeengen Henry shared an Indigenous understanding of land. Studying Leviticus 25:10-13 and Luke 4 further challenged us to see the land as God’s, not ours, and not held in perpetuity. We live and worship on the traditional territory of the Anishinabe, Neutral and Haudenosaunee peoples, land that is “ours” by the logic of the DoD. But what is the future to which these covenants and God’s Spirit call us?
Within our Covenant series, we examined the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) as a new covenant into which we are invited. The TRC Calls to Action identify the Declaration as the “framework for reconciliation.” When Steve Heinrichs, Mennonite Church Canada Indigenous Relations staff person, invited Stirling to participate in the Pilgrimage for Indigenous Rights, the congregation responded enthusiastically. Seventeen of us participated for part or all of this 600-kilometre pilgrimage from Kitchener to Ottawa in support of the Declaration and Bill C-262, a federal private member’s bill calling on Canada to adopt and implement UNDRIP. Many more church members participated in smaller ways, including hosting the send-off service for pilgrimage walkers, following the walkers on social media and praying for them.
Decolonizing our hearts, our churches and our country from the ravages of the DoD is not something we can ever check off a list. It is a generations-long journey of relationship with God, ourselves, the land and our Indigenous neighbours. Looking backwards at the DoD and recognizing our colonial lenses can help us walk forward towards reconciliation.
Sue Klassen and Josie Winterfeld are members of Stirling Avenue Mennonite Church in Kitchener, Ontario.
Cober Bauman, Rick. “Unlearning the Doctrine of Discovery.” Available at https://mccottawaoffice.wordpress.com/2016/04/20/unlearning-the-doctrine-of-discovery/
Heinrichs, Steve and Woelk, Cheryl. Eds. Yours, Mine, Ours: Unravelling the Doctrine of Discovery. Winnipeg: Mennonite Church Canada, 2016.
Keefer, Tom. “A Short Introduction to the Two Row Wampum.” Available at https://briarpatchmagazine.com/articles/view/a-short-introduction-to-the-two-row-wampum.
Venables, Robert. “Guswenta and the Covenant Chain.” Available at http://www.onondaganation.org/history/2013/guswenta-and-the-covenant-chain/.
The Canadian parliament has moved to second reading of Bill C-262, a bill that will ensure Canada’s laws are in harmony with the UNDRIP. Learn more about Bill C-262 and how you can support it at https://mcccanada.ca/get-involved/advocacy/campaigns/why-support-bill-c-262-undrip-act.