Cannon Ball, ND – In an unprecedented and “historic” display of interfaith unity and solidarity — which saw Muslim, Jewish and Christian religious leaders come together — over 500 clergy members gathered in prayer on the banks of the Cannon Ball River and “bore witness with the Standing Rock Sioux Nation.”
Then in a historic move, the group ceremonially burned a copy of a 600-year-old document, known as the Doctrine of Discovery, which is a document from the 1400’s that sanctioned the taking of land from non-Christians worldwide. The document, as recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court, essentially negated recognition of true Native sovereignty — designating the U.S. as having plenary power over what would otherwise be fully sovereign nations — and subjugating Natives to the will of federal authority.
According to a report by the Episcopal News Service:
On the morning of November 3 in the center of Oceti Sakowin Camp, Christian religious leaders from Episcopal, Lutheran, Presbyterian and Baptist churches—all representing denominations that have repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery—testified to their traditions’ rejection of the 15th-century document. When they finished, they asked tribal elders to come forward and asked that they burn a replica of the Doctrine of Discovery and the elders did so in pots and a bucket near the sacred fire.
Below is a video of the ceremonial burning of the Doctrine of Discovery at Oceti Sakowin Camp.
There was a total of 524 interfaith clergy representing 20 different faith traditions that answered the call put out by Rev. John Floberg. The call was for religious leaders to stand in solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux and bear witness with those peacefully working to protect the tribe’s water supply and treaty land rights.
Floberg’s call for solidarity, initially targeting Episcopalians, went far and wide, drawing Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists and numerous others faith groups. Floberg is the supervising priest for three Episcopal missions on the North Dakota side of the Standing Rock Reservation.
The 524 clergy members participating is significant, as it symbolizes the number of years since Doctrine of Discovery gave Christian explorers the right to legally claim land inhabited by non-Christians.
For those unfamiliar with the history of this document, in 1454, the Bull Romanus Pontifex was issued by Pope Nicholas V, to King Alfonso V of Portugal, which declared war upon all non-Christians worldwide. He specifically sanctioned and promoted the conquest, colonization, and exploitation of all non-Christians and lands under their control.
All non-Christians were labeled as enemies of the Catholic faith and, as such, less than human. In the Papal Bull of 1454, Pope Nicholas directed King Alfonso to “capture, vanquish, and subdue the Saracens, pagans, and other enemies of Christ,” to “put them into perpetual slavery,” and “to take all their possessions and property.”
So how did something that was a papal doctrine within the Catholic Church become adopted by the U.S. legal system, and why is it important?
The U.S. Supreme Court, in 1823, adopted the Christian Doctrine of Discovery into U.S. law in the celebrated case, Johnson v. McIntosh. Chief Justice John Marshall, writing for the unanimous court, made note that Christian European nations had taken “ultimate dominion” of America during the Age of Discovery. Upon “discovery” – the Natives had lost “their rights to complete sovereignty, as independent nations,” claiming they only retained a right of “occupancy” in their own lands.
Essentially, all Native nations were subject to the ultimate authority of Christendom and the US could then claim possession of any region of indigenous lands. Furthermore, according to Marshall, the United States, upon winning its independence in 1776, became a successor nation to the right of “discovery” and acquired the power of “dominion” from Great Britain.
When Marshall first defined the principle of “discovery,” he phrased it in such a way, as to draw attention away from its religious overtones, stating that “discovery gave title to the government, by whose subject, or by whose authority, the discovery was made, against all other European governments.”
Marshall specifically cited the English charter issued to the explorer John Cabot, in order to document England’s “complete recognition” of the Doctrine of Discovery. Marshall, paraphrasing the charter, noted that Cabot was authorized to take possession of lands, “notwithstanding the occupancy of the natives, who were heathens, and, at the same time, admitting the prior title of any Christian people who may have made a previous discovery.”
The Court essentially affirmed that U.S. law was based upon precedent of the “Law of Nations,” and that it is was permissible, as such, to ignore native rights as they were considered “heathens.” All “unoccupied lands” of America, rightfully belonged to any Christian European nation that claimed them. Operating from a standpoint of legal recognition for “discovery,” in 1831, the Supreme Court stated in Cherokee Nation v. Georgia that the Cherokee Nation (and, by default, all Native nations) was not fully sovereign, but “may, perhaps,” be deemed a “domestic dependent nation.”
This decision allowed the federal government to refuse to recognize legal treaties made with Indian nations, as they were no longer considered sovereign nations, but under U.S. government control. Native American nations were now considered “domestic dependent nations” subject to the federal government’s absolute legislative authority – known as “plenary power.” This power is a direct retardation of those enumerated in the Constitution, and was never intended by the Founding Fathers.
Somehow an ancient Christian religious doctrine, which allowed for the subjugation of “heathen” non-Christians, was granted legitimacy by the U.S. federal government. This, in turn, allowed the federal government to exert almost complete control over Native nations and their lands.
The Doctrine of Discovery, now encoded in U.S. law, has been used to commit one of the largest genocides in human history. The doctrine has been cited by the US Supreme Court as recently as 2005, in City of Sherrill, NY v. Oneida Nation.
The decision read, “Under the ‘doctrine of discovery…’ fee title (ownership) to the lands occupied by Indians when the colonists arrived became vested in the sovereign-first the discovering European nation and later the original states and the United States.”
Since the U.S. has encoded this Doctrine of Discovery into its legal framework, revoking the Papal Bull which underpins the legality of Native Americans’ subjugation by the U.S., is a crucial first step in deconstructing the legal foundation for the framework first put in place by the Johnson v. McIntosh decision.
Without this Papal Bull, the U.S. would be forced to reconcile the forced assimilation and wholesale ethnocide it carried out against its Native inhabitants, treaty breaches, theft of Indigenous lands and resources, and the brutal genocide it engaged in through massacres like those that Wounded Knee. The United States has attempted to legally justify these atrocities by hiding behind religion.
“After the interfaith allies witnessed the burning of the Doctrine of Discovery, they formed a single line and received a smudging, a ritual act of purification, as they exited the camp and reassembled on Highway 1806 to march toward the backwater bridge. There they spent hours sharing testimony and gathering in a Niobrara Circle,” according to the Episcopal News Service.
“As I’m looking around the circle of 524 faith leaders from all over this country, I feel like I’m watching reconciliation,” the Rev. Stephanie Spellers, canon to the presiding bishop for evangelism and reconciliation, told ENS. “What we say is that reconciliation is the embodiment of Good News…. This is what the love of God enacted looks like. And the fact that we are doing it together, the fact that the spirit has drawn us together is one more of those signs that this is what God looks like and this is why it’s reconciliation.”
One way Americans can stand with the Standing Rock Sioux is by telling the U.S. government to honor its land treaties with Native Americans. The standoff near Standing Rock centers around two issues: water quality and sacred lands – both of which are directly attributable to treaty rights violations by the U.S. government.
“You hear a lot about law and order from the other side of that bridge, and I want to turn this conversation to the real rule of law which is that the United States of America has never fulfilled the treaty obligations of any treaty that it has ever made with any tribal nation,” Floberg continued. “…so if we are going to say we respect, we are going to call our government to task and to accountability that as citizens we are going to speak from within and say we are not respected. And according to another identity that I have, a citizen of the kingdom of God, as a child of God, as a citizen there, I am calling upon this government to honor and fully fulfill [and redress] its treaty obligations.”
While these numerous denominations have come together to renounce the Doctrine of Discover that underpins the constitutional usurping of Native American rights, it’s crucial that Pope Francis revoke, in a formal ceremony with indigenous people, the Inter Cetera Bulls of 1493 – just as these various religious leaders have done at Standing Rock.
Once this heinous doctrine is officially revoked by the Catholic Church, the legal basis for not granting Native nations the sovereignty they deserve will no longer exist, making it that much easier to deconstruct the genocidal framework of the past.
Please share this amazing story of so many various religious groups coming together to stand with the Standing Rock Sioux!