Home / Be The Change / How Columbus’ “Discovery” Set Off the Brutal Native American Oppression that Continues Today

How Columbus’ “Discovery” Set Off the Brutal Native American Oppression that Continues Today


Upon arriving on the white sands of Guanahani Island, Christopher Columbus performed a ceremony to “take possession” of the land for his benefactors, the king and queen of Spain. His actions were legitimized under the international laws of Western Christendom.

Virtually all American school children are taught about Columbus’s “discovery” as some type of mythical adventure. However, few are aware of the religious doctrine that underpins his taking “possession” of the newly arrived upon land, which has come to be known as the Doctrine of Discovery.

Fewer yet are aware that currently – over five hundred years later – the U.S. government still uses this doctrine to uniformly deny Native Americans’ their rights.

Origins of the Doctrine of Discovery

To understand the  Christian principle of discovery’s connection to the current laws of the United States, one must examine a papal document issued forty years before Columbus’ historic voyage.

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 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.”

By the time Columbus sailed across the Atlantic in 1492 – he was following an already well-established tradition of conquest and “discovery.”

It’s extremely important to note that the heinous acts of brutality and genocide carried out by Columbus and his men against the indigenous people of the Caribbean were fully endorsed and sanctioned by the holy documents of Christendom. These religious texts were used as a justification for the brutal system of colonization imposed upon non-Christian people, whom the church categorized as “brute animals.”

Doctrine of Discovery & U.S. Law

So how did something that was a papal doctrine within the Catholic Church become adopted by the U.S. legal system?

READ MORE:  An Oscar Was Once Refused to Protest Native Rights, and Could Happen Again Tonight

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.”

Upon closer inspection though, 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.

Of course, it’s extremely important to understand that the term “unoccupied lands” referred to “the lands in America which, when “discovered,” were occupied by Indians’ but ‘unoccupied’ by Christians.”

READ MORE:  Europe's Forgotten 'Hitler' Killed Over 10 Million Africans -- But the West Erased it From History

Ironically, the same year that the Johnson v. McIntosh decision was handed down, founding father James Madison wrote: “Religion is not in the purview of human government. Religion is essentially distinct from civil government, and exempt from its cognizance; a connection between them is injurious to both.”

Most of us have been brought up to believe that the United States Constitution was designed to keep church and state apart. Unfortunately, with the Johnson decision, the Christian Doctrine of Discovery was not only written into U.S. law but also became the cornerstone of U.S. Native American policy over nearly the next two centuries.

From Discovery to Dependent

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 the 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.

If there were a true separation of church and state, the Doctrine of Discovery would have long ago been declared unconstitutional. It is based on a prejudicial treatment of Native Americans, due to their non-Christian religious beliefs upon the European arrival.

Ending the Injustice

To penalize a group of people due to their religious belief system reeks of the worst kind of tyrannical oppression. Stripping sovereign nations of most of their lands, the Johnson v. McIntosh ruling stands as one of the most egregious violations of the fundamental human rights of indigenous peoples.

READ MORE:  7-Year-Old Native American Student Removed From School For Traditional Mohawk Haircut

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 underpin 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.

Pope Francis must revoke, in a formal ceremony with indigenous people, the Inter Cetera Bulls of 1493. Once this heinous doctrine is revoked, the legal basis for not granting Native nations the sovereignty they deserve will no longer exist, making it that much easier to deconstruct the racist framework of the past.

h/t – Inspired by Steven Newcomb’s Five Hundred Years of Injustice: The Legacy of Fifteenth Century Religious Prejudice

Jay Syrmopoulos is an investigative journalist, free thinker, researcher, and ardent opponent of authoritarianism. He is currently a graduate student at University of Denver pursuing a masters in Global Affairs. Jay’s work has been published on Ben Swann’s Truth in Media, Truth-Out, AlterNet, InfoWars, MintPressNews and maany other sites. You can follow him on Twitter @sirmetropolis, on Facebook at Sir Metropolis and now on tsu

  • Same tactics and Papal edict was used against the Araucanian Indian Nation in Chile, even to this day!

    • They still glorify their saint Fransis avier the 1st religious terrorist in history!

    • Francis Xavier was never in the Americas, are you confusing him with Junipero Serra, and I am surprised that you, as buddhist, would express such strong feelings

  • We are not responsible for what happened in history. We are all being oppressed today by a corrupt government. I am proud to be American. It’s time we all forgive one another for past transgressions and stop tearing this nation apart. Together we can once again be strong. United.

    • We can no longer claim, not as good christians, irrressponsibility for past doings, when in the present is still being used against a People who where here long before we came to this land.

    • Alicia grow up Richard you are absolutely right all we can do is try to be better people and blame ourselves for the things that people we didn’t even know did to others. I know I didn’t kill any Indian s or take their land

    • No James Rivard, you grow up.
      She speaks the truth.
      As an indigenous woman, I will say that pretending the past is in the past isn’t an option.
      There are still very real systemic inequities that lead to structural inequalities.
      So, no, past “transgressions” are #not in the past.
      They are very much still affecting my people.

    • You keep purposedly ignoring my point. My responsibility is to right a wrong today,regardless who did the wrong in the past.

    • It is worth noting that the people that were wronged died centuries ago. All that’s left is people like Brenda Budd trying get a handout rather than do hard work like everyone else today.

    • Hmmmmm, I must have read a different post. The one I read said the papal bull was still being used today in its discovery form. It is today that is the focus. The history provided is to set the context and importance. Continued use and subsequent abuse must cease. The irony seems to be that our Christian history is very similar to our present Islamic jihadists. Wishing you all well on your journey

    • Any thoughts on this?

  • As a white man I wish I were as “oppressed” as a native American. All the ones I know buy new cars every few months, wear designer clothes, live in huge houses, and deal with less illegal laws than me.

    • Well maybe you should go live on Pine Ridge Rez to get a good feel for it…. avg life expectancy for a kid born today there; 48 years old.

    • Envy?

    • Leave the rez? It’s not like anyone is keeping them there.

    • That is offensively ignorant. But that appears to be the American norm.

    • They were here long before we arrived

    • And how will they move… with good looks and buttons as payment? 80% unemployment on the rez, so not a lot of economic opportunities to save money to move. You obviously speak from a position of relative privilege considering these stats.
      * 97% of of the population at Pine Ridge Reservation live below federal poverty line.

      * The unemployment rate vacillates from 85% to 95% on the Reservation.

      * Death due to Heart Disease: Twice the national average.

      * The infant mortality rate is the highest on this continent and is about 300% higher than the U.S. national average.

      * Elderly die each winter from hypothermia (freezing).

      * Recent reports point out that the median income on the Pine Ridge Reservation is approximately $2,600 to $3,500 per year.

      * At least 60% of the homes are severely substandard, without water, electricity, adequate insulation, and sewage systems.

    • Ben Walburn I feel perfectly comfortable saying this. Shut the fuck up, you asshole.

    • It’s not ignorant at all. Your disagreement is not a magical force that warps reality to your idiotic beliefs.

      Why did you email yourself a copy of my message?

      You can go back to playing with your poop, Yvonne Flori Pfeiffer. Nobody cares about your idiotic and pointless demand.

    • You live by the only tribe that wasn’t subjugated.

    • Ben, stop wriggling….you’re quickly sinking in the quicksand of ignorance. It looks like Jay (above) pretty handily refuted your assertions with some facts, and could probably have listed three times as many. So re-examine “reality” a little, and consider familiarizing yourself with those annoying little variables called facts.

    • He didn’t list anything relevant to my statement. Don’t confuse trivia with a rebuttal.

    • Brenda Budd, you know nothing. I’m not right wing, I’m as bigoted as literally every other person in the world, I’m neither little nor a kid, I know plenty of indigenous people, from Florida, remember? I’m not “hateful” and I’m definitely not a hypocrite, I’m not angry or insecure, and if I were half as intelligent as I am then I’d be twice as smart as you.

      You know nothing at all except how to make up crap about other people. You’re a ignorant and petty idiot, happier making up stories about people than actually learning about them.


    • Ah, a backwards liberal regressive claiming to be an anarchist. That’s hilarious. Not surprising, considering her penchant for fiction and rabid hatred of reality.

  • Recognize Columbus day as bullsh*t? ‘Like’ + Share + Comment (even 2 words) Thank you! (y)

  • The Doctrine of Discovery is one of the most brutal tools ever employed to subjugate and enslave people.

    • What the fuck are you talking about ?

      I posted a funny picture, like it or gtfo

    • They received guns, they had guns, their guns were taken and they were left at the mercy of their oppressors.

      Yeah, so inconsistent with the facts.

      Ginet just wanted to stir up some shit about my profile picture which has nothing at all to do with my comment, or the OP.

  • I wish the gov could read,they will see how many of its people are unhappy with them,,,all over the world.

  • Happy Indigenous Peoples Day. Screw Columbus. This “holiday” is the result of successful lobbying by the knights of columbus. That genocidal maniac should never be celebrated.

  • Rename ALL Columbus streets and anything affiliated to his named after him,,,he was a rapist thief and Criminal.

  • I think I’ll go rediscover places, Pacific grove. Carmel by the sea… Oohhohhh and San Francisco… Yep there mine. I rediscovered them. Planted my flag and everything

  • Columbus wasnt an englishman and you dont see the disgusting race codes of anglo usa anywhere in latin America..he was bad for other reasons but dont pawn off ur fucked up history onto other ppl…

    • The Spaniards were extraordinarily brutal in their treatment of indigenous Americans. Maybe you need to own up to your own fucked up history, to use your elegant phrase.

    • Nothing beats the English and French the proof is in your brutality and race codes…I know my history you cant bamboozle me… you try to front like a fucking hero pilgrim settler good guy when you were no better, ALL of you are guilty….Spain was brutal and you were worse a pack of diseased barbarians pirating all over the place…and u celebrate pedophile john smith…if his name was juan sanchez he wouldnt have a Disney movie… thats sick…you label aboriginals as fauna and black americans as 3/5 of human…you purposely destroyed Haiti to avoid slave revolt in ur land… and your legacy and psychological impact of racism outweighs anything columbus has done…like I ssod nowhere in Latin America will you find the kind of on paper laws regarding race…so heres another elegant phrase get off his dick…black people had no rights until 1964, Natives die at hands of police at significantly higher rates, you rip children from their homes and put em in social services to this day on reservations and the fact that reservations exist because manifest destiny shows ur fork tongue ways making and breaking treaties….Indian wars..which was more like thugged out robbery so yall make all this hype about columbus then in November cut turkey tl celebrate your columbuses..so i stopped taking ur concern for indigenous feelings seriously..your ACTIONS say otherwise….look at the abuse Obama faces u have confederate flags…you did james byrd and have aryan nations and kkk all that is from YOUR Anglo culture not no damn columbus…

    • #BOOM!

    • Lucy Marianela: What are you talking about? I was born and raised in South America and as such I know that the same Papal edict regarding conquered people found its way in present laws regarding the Original Peoples of the S.A.continent. These laws have evolved in legalee interpretations, aimed at keeping them extremely,poor, living in below par housing,with no hope of improving their lot, poorly educated, ill and no hope for their children.

    • Alicia Flies-Hammett you are form south america you can say something to me and I will actually respond without contempt.. there is no denial of discrimination on my behalf, what I am referring to are the rabid Anglos who are hypocritical and go hard every october molesting my timeline go and celebrate their own conquerors in thx giving that did way worse. Find me actual laws and rules on the books where it states people of certain clors and ethnicities are not human and 3/5 of a human…no comparison because we have the same thing here with poor education ghettos prison population.. so tell me where I am wrong.. ppl get tight because I say things that arent pretty and dont fit the whole mold like a sheep only hate columbus then in november give thanks for the english version.. I have seen your post elsewhere before regarding the pope…

  • Stop living in the past,blaming anyone alive today for the actions of the Spanish,the arab slavers who them to the people that sold them to the America’s is plain dumb.Well unless your goal is to spread division and if that is the case then you are just another tool of control…

    • It is imposible to have an intelligent conversation with someone so ignorant of history and who is so entrenched in bigotry and hate. Actions have consequences and invoking fear or division is tacitly agreeing with the oppresion, You sir, disgusted me!!

    • Well overall the Spanish kill more indigenous population of the America’s then the US and Canada combined,but why blame people today for those alive at the time?And why do you presume to call me rather nasty words?They don’t hurt but shows a mind brainwashed by faux liberalism are you a self hating white?

    • are you for real Stephan..my gawd i hope you don’t have kids

    • Stephen McKenna actually its very tough not to get angry at such stupid people in this world

    • Alicia Flies-Hammett disgrace to mankind.. its so sickening how ppl think still while the oppression continues.. these assholes have probably never ever been to a rez either smh.. this is why I hate so many people in this world..no brains at all

    • Stephen McKenna wow you really need to do research before looking like an idiot but hey maybe you like it that way..the whitemans way

    • Stephen Mckenna: no, I am not a self-hating white. But as a Christian I know what is right and what is wrong, Hate is a boomeran sir, and your hate will come back to you a hundred fold

  • Maybe I can go over and ‘discover’ a politicians house?

  • any oppression of indians is DONE BY INDIANS! quit with the lies!

    • Ignoramus homo sapiens! Me thinks thou protest too much!

    • Alicia Flies-Hammett no lady i grew up with indians i know them a lot better than you

    • I did too, so don’t give me your hate poison. As I said before you can not have an intelligent conversation with hate. Henceforth I will ignore your comments, Hate/evil does not like to be ignored.

    • Alicia Flies-Hammett GOOD for you cant change stupid and you just need to look in the mirror to see it.

  • I claim this land in the name of foreign power and we kill so don’t act up

  • Happy Native American Day..!!!

  • He did not discover America, he landed in the West Indies AKA the Bahamas, Caribbean.

  • He looks twisted!

  • Your being born here makes you indigenous. Just want to say good job. Tricky seeing those invisible lines we call borders.

  • Christopher Columbus… America’s First Terrorist.

  • Yeah, let’s celebrate Columbus day, not

  • History is a lie…(HIS story) and I just found out AMEN means AMEN RA the Egyptian sun god . No way am I ever saying that again either. This world is one big lie . I’m glad so many are waking up from its deceit . When you research and are not afraid to look on the other side of the fence you will be amazed but shocked to the core at what you find. Leave no stone unturned to find the Truth …It will set us free.

  • BS

  • The ugly truth about Christopher Columbus

  • The truth can enlighten us from the lies of the past.

  • With that ‘discovery’ also came the ‘Seed’ that later became AMERICA where mankind’s Rights found an anchorage place…
    It is the responsibility of each generation to contribute to the upholding of these Higher Principles -Life, Liberty and Justice, for all. And the spreading of them around the world.

    “Let us UNITE and abide by the LAW of LOVE…”


    • stop spreading them around the world by war and in human conduct! keep them for yourselve if you like them so much! We dont want them the American way true government change by violence, introduction of terrorism etc. Keep it!

  • We need to learn from them before we destroy them and keep their traditions and them here.

  • “Free thought project” stop pinning all the blame on white people. Yeah. I’m sick of the white jokes and over politically correctness. Just get rid of the holiday and realize all the races had problems when they were young. In other words, everybody just grow up. I don’t believe there is any “Brutal Native American Opression that Continues Today.” There is however, a lot of white bashing. And this is elementary level philosophy.

  • Largest genocide to humans ever in the planet

  • So glad they schools nationwide are dropping the holiday named after this sociopath. They need to replace it with a Native American holiday. After all, the first participatory democracy in North America was the Iroquois Confederacy.

  • He did not discover America.

  • This is some of the most mindless BS I’ve seen in a while. I would explain it to these fools, but if this is their position on Columbus, they’re hopeless. CC, wherever you are, I appreciate you man. Without you, there is no U.S.

  • Your Poxy bitch Columbus is a fraud like the rest of yas

  • What an awesome year to finally see this

  • No shit.

  • The Jews Had it Bad, But No Way as Bad as Our Native Americans.