March 12, 2014 - Challenging the "Doctrine of Discovery":


Religious Roots of Cultural Imperialism and Environmental Destruction

Phil Arnold, Professor of Religion at Syracuse University and Director of the Skä·noñh—Great Law of Peace Center

The “Doctrine of Discovery,” which legitimizes the enslavement of non-Christians by Christians in the Western Hemisphere and the taking of their lands, is a religious and legal concept that originated with Papal Bulls (letters from the Pope) issued in the 15th century. In particular, two bulls, the Law of Nations of 1452 and the Inter Caetera Bull of 1493 (written only a few short months after Columbus’ return to Spain), authorized the Kings of Portugal and Spain to exploit Africa and the Americas for slaves and lands to enrich the Catholic Church. At the time it was understood that Christianity had to be promoted throughout the known world at all costs.

In May, 2005 I attended a meeting at the United Nations organized by Indigenous people from across the US to discuss the devastating consequences of the “Doctrine of Discovery.” The panel included Tonya Gonella Frichner, founder of the American Indian Law Alliance; Oren Lyons, Faithkeeper of the Onondaga Nation; Esmeralda Brown, Southern Caucus of Non-Governmental Organizations; Alex White Plume, Oglala Nation; Birgil Kills Straight, Oglala Nation; and Steven Newcomb, Indigenous Law Institute. Because those Papal bulls were rooted in cultural imperialism, the Holy See of the Vatican has been called on for twenty years to rescind them. The evidence is clear that, even though these bulls were written over 500 years ago, it is of urgent concern to all Indigenous people that they be rescinded.

Basis of US Law

US law rests on the “Doctrine of Discovery,” particularly around issues of land title. The Doctrine justified the taking of land from the original inhabitants of the Americas. Writing in 1823 for the Supreme Court ruling in Johnson v. McIntosh, Chief Justice John Marshall said the doctrine meant that “unoccupied lands” were those “lands occupied by Indians, but unoccupied by Christians.” Since then the “Doctrine of Discovery” has been regularly cited by legal scholars (Henry Weaton, B.A. Hinsdale, and George Grafton Wilson) and in court decisions.

Another key decision was Tee-Hit-Ton v. United States (1955), which evoked the concept of “Manifest Destiny,” justifying Protestant immigrants taking land in the name of their Christian god. Then, in the Supreme Court decision Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation (March 29, 2005), Justice Ginsberg, arguably the most liberal justice on the court, wrote the decision against the Oneida Nation’s claim that their purchasing land which had been illegally taken by New York State could restore it to their aboriginal territory. The first citation in that decision was the “Doctrine of Discovery.”

Enormous Consequences

The 15th century Papal Bulls assumed the superiority of Christianity over all other religious options. Although the precedent of religious intolerance had been set in Christian’s interactions with Jews and Muslims previous to the “Age of Discovery,” intolerance rose exponentially when Europeans engaged with Indigenous-people. Interactions with non-Christians in the Americas were never genuine inter-cultural exchanges but cultural appropriations. The Europeans’ first action on landfall was taking possession of the land on behalf of European monarchs. They placed two flags in the sand—one for the King and one for the Church.

The legacy of the “Doctrine of Discovery” has been devastating. Intractable social problems of racism, religious intolerance and a burgeoning environmental crisis are directly tied to it. The varied belief systems of people throughout the world are becoming homogenized into a single, imperialist worldview. The traditional Christian worldview that humans are to dominate and subdue the earth has lead to environmental degradation at an alarming rate of speed.

Rescind the Bulls

While calling for the revocation and rescinding of these 15th century bulls is clear for the Indigenous peoples of the world, it is just as clear a necessity that those of us who are Immigrant people join in this appeal to the Vatican. Europeans, escaping tyrannical rulers in Europe by coming to the Americas, benefited profoundly from their associations with Native Americans. For example, blessings of new foods, new forms of leadership (including our democratic principles), and ideas about women’s rights flowed to European-American inhabitants from their Indigenous neighbors.

Unfortunately, I predict that the Vatican will not seriously entertain the call to rescind the 15th century Papal Bulls. It would be seen as a sign of weakness to admit that Christianity is just one religious option among many others. Most religions in the world readily acknowledge that there are wide divergences of worldviews. Diversity is a fact of life which allows life to continue. The Church only demonstrates its weakness by promoting a single authentic religious view. All genuine inter-cultural interaction proceeds from the humble assumption that no human being, no culture, no religion has all the answers to life’s questions.

Phil is a Professor of Religion at Syracuse University and a member of Neighbors of the Onondaga Nation. This article originally appeared in the July/August 2005 issue (#744) of the Peace Newsletter.


Don’t use dehumanizing materials that depict indigenous people as objects or animals rather than as human beings. Avoid using books, songs and alphabet cards that say, “ I is for Indian,” “E is for Eskimo,” or “One little, two little, three little Indians…” These examples dehumanize and belittle an entire ethnic group. Kay Olan, Mohawk/Wolf Clan


Skänoñh‹Great Law of Peace Center – A survey to collect input from a wide community of people is on line. It would be a great help in the development of the site if you could take just a few minutes to fill it out.


April 5 & 6, 10AM-5PM,Onondaga Nation/Team Haudenosaunee 2014 Arts& Crafts Show to raise funds for athletes competing in 2014 North American Indian Games, Onondaga Arena. Vendors with traditional Native American food, 50/50 raffle, Chinese auction, local artists & painters, Jewelry, pottery, Pendleton blankets, Haudenosaunee Singers & Dancers.


Ganondagan March activities of interest: Corn & Haudenosaunee Creation – March 18 (deadline to register 3/14) and Informed Consent - March 28. . Information and details can be found at


To Neal Powless on being selected to coach the Dutch National Team in the 2014 Federation of International Lacrosse World Championship. This will make Neal the first Haudenosaunee to coach an International team.


March 18 - Doctrine of Discovery Study Group, 7 pm at the home of Phil Arnold and Sandy Bigtree, 100 Luan Circle, Jamesville, NY 13078 (315-449-1650315-449-1650 ). Group is open and anyone is welcome to attend who wants to learn more about the Doctrine of Discovery or to help dismantle it. For additional information call Phil, 315-449-1650315-449-1650 , or Sue, 315-492-2684315-492-2684 .

March 19 - Shaleshock CNY, 6 pm, Community Room, Onondaga Free Library. Meeting on local anti-hydrofracking efforts. Anyone interested in learning more about this organizing in CNY or to connect to these efforts is encouraged to attend.

April 8 - NOON Steering Committee Meeting, 7-8:30 pm, Syracuse Peace Council, 2013 E. Genesee St., Syracuse, open meeting. Since new people often have a lot of questions, we recommend talking with Carol Baum, Syracuse Peace Council Staff (315-472-5478315-472-5478 , or Sue Eiholzer, NOON Volunteer (315-492-2684315-492-2684 , before the meeting.


April 2, 5-8 PM – Focus Greater Syracuse will present their 2014 Wisdom Keeper Award to Oren Lyon, Turtle Clan, Onondaga Faithkeeper, at the Oncenter, Grand Ballroom, in Syracuse. Cost: $100 per person. The event includes live entertainment, a video tribute to Oren Lyons, food and a cash bar. Contact Jennifer Creighton at 315-448-8732315-448-8732  with any questions.


May 10, 10:00 am – 5:00 pm - From the Earth Arts and Crafts Show, hosted by the Onondaga Nation School PTS, Onondaga Nation School (located on rte. 11a ), food - music friends - jewelry- sculptures- baskets -paintings – bead work. Free admission – donations accepted – free extra parking available in the health center parking lot.


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