Introduction: Indigenous People’s Day

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October 7, 2012

The Doctrine of Discovery
Comments By

The Rev. Susan Manker-Seale

October 7, 2012

Introduction: Indigenous People’s Day
Some of you might have heard that tomorrow is Columbus Day. That holiday is being challenged because our view of history is changing. Unitarian Universalists, along with many people in our country, no longer believe that it is right to conquer a people. Our first principle, in fact, states that we affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person.
Instead of celebrating the conquering of people, as Columbus was sent off to do by his queen, people in our nation today are asking that we use that holiday as a time to learn a tougher truth about how our country has treated the native peoples over the last four hundred years. They’re calling us not to celebrate Columbus Day, but rather, Indigenous People’s Day. The Unitarian Universalist Association is in agreement with this call.
Last June, over twenty-five of our members went to the General Assembly in Phoenix to protest injustices in our state and country. One of those is the use of the Doctrine of Discovery, which we’ll look at later in the service. We also are called, and have been for more than three decades in our faith, to learn from the native peoples who live among us, and open our minds and hearts to the experiences and outlooks they are willing to share.
A long-time friend of this congregation, Bob Lomadafkie, has graciously agreed to speak with us this morning. He is a Hopi elder, and helps indigenous students at the university to get adjusted to the change from reservation life to living in a university setting. He’s spoken a lot on the Doctrine of Discovery, but I also asked if he would share some of the wisdom he has acquired over the years from his life and ancestors. He will speak later on in the service, and has given permission for his talk to be recorded and posted on the website.

Doctrine of Discovery: Synopsis

To give you a synopsis of the Doctrine of Discovery, I’m quoting from several resources, including the UUA’s website page dedicated to this subject, a paper entitled The Doctrine of Discovery in American Indian Law, by Professor Robert Miller of Lewis and Clark Law School, and a sermon on this topic by Matt Alspaugh, dated April 15, 2012.
“The Doctrine of Discovery (DOD) is an international law principle developed primarily by Spain, Portugal, England, and the Catholic Church in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries.” (Miller)
In 1452, Pope Nicholas V produced a papal bull known as Dum Diversas, which granted the king of Portugal “full and free power”:

    • “to invade, search out, capture, and subjugate the Saracens and pagans and any other unbelievers and enemies of Christ wherever they may be, as well as their kingdoms, duchies, counties, principalities, and other property […] and to reduce their persons into perpetual slavery.” (Alspaugh: wikipedia on Dum Diversas)

“...A followup document, Romanus Pontifex, allowed Portugal to seize for themselves the lands of non-Christians they encountered. The Doctrine of Discovery was established. Thus an age of conquest began. After Christopher Columbus’s travels to the New World, Pope Alexander VI in 1493 issued Inter Caetera, belatedly commanding Spain to “instruct the aforesaid inhabitants and residents and dwellers therein in the Catholic faith, and train them in good morals.” (Alspaugh)
In 1496, King Henry VII granted John Cabot a patent, stating:

    • “John and his sons or their heirs and deputies may conquer, occupy and possess whatsoever such towns, castles, cities and islands by them thus discovered that they may be able to conquer, occupy and possess, as our vassals and governors lieutenants and deputies therein, acquiring for us the dominion, title and jurisdiction of the same town, castles, cities, islands and mainlands so discovered.” (Alspaugh)

“In a nutshell, the DOD, as applied by England and the United States to the American tribes, came to mean that when European, Christian nations first discovered new lands, the discovering country automatically gained sovereign and property rights in the lands of the non-Christian, non-European nation even though, obviously, the natives already owned, occupied, and used these lands. In addition, the discoverer also gained sovereign governmental rights over the native peoples and their governments, which restricted tribal international political relationships and trade. This transfer of political, commercial, and property rights was accomplished without the knowledge nor the consent of the Indian people.” (Miller)
“Hundreds of years of decisions and laws continuing right up to our own time can ultimately be traced back to the Doctrine of Discovery--laws that invalidate or ignore the rights, sovereignty, and humanity of indigenous peoples in the United States and around the world.” (

Who is the United States of America? How do we define ourselves, by what measures? Who can be included in that definition, and who is being excluded?
A few years ago, a cry went up among the people of our country, triggered by the horrific events of 9/11/01, that we are a Christian nation. This is not a new claim; it rises whenever we as a country are being threatened. It becomes necessary, then, to publicly believe in a Christian god to be a successful politician, and many forget the interfaith nature of our neighborhoods, the interfaith nature of our history as a nation. The Christians founded our nation, and by god they ought to be determining our future as well, so some believe, and deeply.
Of course, this claim regarding who we are as a nation raises the hackles in so many of us. This land was composed of nations before we even arrived, but it’s important to a conquering people to dehumanize those human beings being conquered, to rewrite history, to hide the truth from our children and ourselves, and thus try to justify what has happened to all of us as a people to make us who we are today.
I’m trying to be careful how I phrase things in talking about our identity as an American people. My right hand, for example, could be very upset with the rest of me, because that’s about how much I am native american: one thirty-second. My grandfather on my father’s side, also a Unitarian minister, went to school on the Cherokee reservation in Oklahoma, even though he was Delaware. And I could not understand why his mother would not speak of their heritage for a long, long time, not until I went on my own journey of discovery to trace my missing ancestor, known only by the initial “E,” and ended up on the Trail of Tears in southern Illinois. I began to learn, and it wasn’t really new, but at the same time, it was incredibly new, eye-opening, and tragic.
When Jackson made the law that native peoples could no longer own land, he and the American government, which is “we the people,” (though that excluded all women, African men, and non-landowners), were laying a claim based on the Doctrine of Discovery. The Catholic Pope of the fifteenth century sent the explorers of the world off with the mandate to conquer and oppress, and even enslave those people they encountered who were not Christian, and to take those lands thus discovered. You remember hearing about the crusaders who journeyed to the Holy Lands to try to take them back, and failed utterly, but they set off with this mindset of the right of the Christian conquerer. It also shaped the vision of Columbus, and those who conquered the New World, created the African slave trade, and the oppressive lens through which our forebears experienced one another in this land, this land which had been “discovered” by Spain, Portugal, France and England.
The Catholics have retracted that Papal Bull, but it is still being referred to, at least in spirit, in our legal system today to determine the rights, or lack thereof, of the native american people in our nation. Oh, wait, are the native americans in our nation? Do they/we have the same rights as the rest of the american people?
When Arizona passed SB 1070, the UUA, which is us of course, was going to once again boycott the state and move our General Assembly to another place. But those of us trying to minister in this state, those of us who are Arizonans here, requested that we rethink this action, and instead, consider coming to be in solidarity with the struggle to determine who has the right to live among us, or to continue living among us. For those of us in Southern Arizona, we have lived the permeable nature of our border for centuries, and know that people were living here long before the land was claimed by Spain, and then England, and then America. Families live on both sides of the border, and it is only very recently that the border wall and the border tactics have separated entire families and nations. My daughter-in-love is a Tohono O’Odham, and her grandmother lived in a little house just off the highway we drove every year to go to the beach in Rocky Point. The O’Odham nation is split down the middle by the border wall, with half in Mexico. And my grandchild born two days ago bears their O’Odham name: Choyguha.
This is the American story today: we can no longer be classified into a single people, with a single heritage or claim to our nation’s past. We the people has become a much broader term, encompassing the immigrants like my grandmother from Hungary and my great grandfather from Germany, as well as those who fought in the Revolutionary War, like my ancestor George Manker. It includes the missing, those who hid in plain sight like my fourth great grandmother “E.” It includes those who lived here before the border lines were drawn, and it includes those who were invited in to work the harvests and raise their children in our lands. It’s a terrible thing to retract that invitation, and say that being illegal is justification for incarcerating a people and separating their families.
The partners who worked with the UUA in planning the justice events for General Assembly said that in order to understand our nation’s history, as well as current laws such as SB 1070, we need to learn about the Doctrine of Discovery, and help to dismantle this mindset. The General Assembly passed a resolution in June in response: “Be it resolved that we, the delegates of the 2012 General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association, repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery as a relic of colonialism, feudalism, and religious, cultural, and racial biases having no place in the modern day treatment of indigenous peoples.”
Our task is to open our eyes and ears to truths that have been hidden from us, even in plain sight; to listen to the experiences of native americans living among us, to share our stories of oppression as well as insights out of our various backgrounds, native and otherwise; and to partner with native organizations, and learn, learn, learn.

Beacon UU Congregation, Flagstaff, AZ

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