Time to officially repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery

After showing the film “Two Who Dared” about the Sharps, a Unitarian couple who saved thousands of children from the Nazis, Charlie Clements asked for questions. I stood and asked what current conditions are analogous to German fascism that should spur us to action.

Charlie cited Darfur. This region of Sudan has been at war for a decade now, with 300,000 people slaughtered. It is not the usual genocide, however, where the conflict is based on religion or race. The two warring parties are both Muslims and of similar ethnicity, but one group is semi-nomadic and the other sedentary agriculturalists. Theoretically, these two groups should coexist peacefully, but that is far from the case in Darfur. It seems that this conflict is about resources on that sparse land.

Right after asking Charlie my question, I thought of another situation analogous to Nazi Germany. This human tragedy is closer to home, however.

Our European forbearers invaded a prosperous land that supported its indigenous population very well. Native Americans helped some of the European settlers when they first arrived. How did we thank them? By uprooting them, waging devastating wars and introducing fatal diseases.

In 1869, social reformer Lucretia Mott spoke of “the barbarities which have been practiced towards the Indians, and of their present condition of degradation in contrast with their condition when William Penn landed on this continent.”

Using both bullets and disease, the European invaders killed off 80 percent to 90 percent of Native Americans. We came close to wiping out the people who had first rights to North and South America.

How could the medieval Europeans justify this massacre? The roots of this tragedy go back to the first half of the second millennium of Christianity. The Roman Catholic Church’s policy at that time was forced conversion of infidels (and of other enemies). Sometimes, conversion was bypassed and the poor souls were killed directly. The church ruled with fear and an iron fist.

Intolerance of diversity affected many groups. Fanaticism inspired the Crusades, resulting in the massacre of millions of Muslims. The last, Albigensian Crusade was in Europe, against the Cathars, a Christian sect who protested the power of the church. Cathars were obliterated in 1244 with the burning of the last 200 or more of these Protestants.

A single religious policy, the Doctrine of Discovery, made the conquering and massacre of Native Americans possible. Indeed, this Doctrine made it imperative that Christian Europeans conquer and convert in the name of Jesus. To quote Pope Nicholas V’s Papal Bull Romanus Pontifex of 1455, European monarchs were “to invade, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens and pagans and other enemies of Christ ... to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery [and] to take away all their possessions and property.”

In 1823, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the continued right of Europeans to own and control property that once belonged to Native Americans in the case of Johnson vs. M’Intosh.

The court maintained that the U.S. government, as the discovering sovereign’s successor, does have the right to nullify Native Americans’ interest in their lands. Thus, indigenous people had no right to their own lands! This doctrine became the cornerstone of U.S. Indian policy and was the basis for a court decision as recently as 2005.

The world has changed vastly since 1455. Both the church and secular laws have changed immeasurably. Our society is much more egalitarian; now every person has value. By today’s standards, many of the dirty deeds that the Europeans did would be unconscionable. We should be careful not to judge the past by today’s values, but also must be sure that today’s laws and practices don’t perpetuate the dark past.

What should we of European descent do to make it right with Native Americans? It is impossible for us to provide complete recompense; too much has happened since 1492. For instance, many of European descent live on land formerly used by the Utes, and we are unwilling and unable to move.

A first step is to become aware of past history. I don’t remember learning about the Doctrine of Discovery in school, yet it is a vital part of history. A public apology is in order; this essay is my personal apology. I understand that there are treaties between the federal government and Native Americans that the government has consistently broken. We should ask Washington to live up to its promises to our indigenous hosts. Finally, we must work to prevent similar unethical policies that lead to genocide.

Richard Grossman practices gynecology in Durango. Reach him at richard@population-matters.org. © Richard Grossman MD, 2013