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?
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.”
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.
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