General Convention renounces Doctrine of Discovery

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Repudiation of centuries-old theory has modern implications, advocates say
August 27, 2009

Among the 419 resolutions that bishops and deputies considered during the July 8-17 meeting of General Convention in Anaheim, California were some that seemed obscure and received little attention, but that in reality carried significant meaning for many.

Resolution D035, titled "Repudiation of Doctrine of Discovery," is one such measure.

Some of the doctrine's early roots are traced to 1455 when Pope Nicholas V, by way of his order "Romanus Pontifex," gave Portugal's King Alfonso V permission to "invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens and pagans whatsoever, and other enemies of Christ wheresoever placed, and the kingdoms, dukedoms, principalities, dominions, possessions, and all movable and immovable goods whatsoever held and possessed by them and to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery."

While the principle might seem irrelevant today, the resolution's advocates say its impact echoes through current governmental policy and human behavior.

John Chaffee, resolution sponsor and a history professor at the State University of New York at Binghamton, said in an interview that "history continues to be relevant in terms of justice issues today."

"One of the things that the church needs to do is stand up for issues of justice and I think this is a very clear case of that," said Chaffee, lay deputy from the Diocese of Central New York. The Doctrine of Discovery, he said, "really has had a profound role in the subjugating of native peoples, particularly in the legal sense."

He suggested that the resolution would in part help Episcopalians understand the "historical underpinnings of our relationship to native Americans."

For instance, Diocese of South Dakota Bishop Creighton Robertson told ENS in April 2008 that just after the Civil War, the U.S. government offered various Christian denominations land in exchange for their complicity in its effort to force Indians to assimilate into the white settlers' culture -- "so that they would be farmers instead of hunters and gatherers, or warriors," Robertson said. The Episcopal Church helped to carry out that plan mainly east of the Missouri River.

"We did that. That's the church's sin," said Robertson, who is an enrolled member on the Sisseton Reservation in South Dakota. "We have to confess that."

Advocates of Resolution D035 argue that Doctrine of Discovery has served as the foundation of U.S. Indian law since at least 1823 when the Supreme Court ruled that the federal government held title to Indian lands as the inheritor of European colonization. It said that indigenous people had a right to occupy the land but not to own it.

John Dieffenbacher-Krall, an Episcopalian and community organizer from Maine involved in the repudiation effort, said renouncing the doctrine and advocating for changes in how indigenous peoples are treated is "bedrock Christianity; this is part of God's message to us."

National Indigenous Anglican Bishop Mark MacDonald of the Anglican Church of Canada recently called the doctrine "a corrupting idea … that distorts humanity, distorts peoples' ability to see."

"We're really called to be relentlessly courageous for the truth and ruthless in applying it to our lives, and especially our institutions," said MacDonald, who helped draft Resolution D035 and advocated in Anaheim for its passage.

By way of the resolution the church:

  • renounced the doctrine;
  • urged dioceses to reflect their history and seek a greater understanding of indigenous peoples "within the geo-political boundaries claimed by the United States and other nation states located within the Episcopal Church's boundaries," and to support their efforts to have "their inherent sovereignty and fundamental human rights" respected;
  • called for the elimination of the doctrine's "presence in its contemporary policies, program, and structures";
  • directed the church to advocate for the federal government's endorsement of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the U.S. opposed when the U.N. General Assembly adopted it in 2007; and
  • directed "the appropriate representatives of the House of Bishops and House of Deputies" to ask Queen Elizabeth II in her role as the head of the Church of England to do the same.

After the Diocese of Maine's convention passed a similar message two years ago, then-diocesan Bishop Chilton Knudsen wrote both Queen Elizabeth and Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams as directed in that resolution, asking them to renounce the doctrine. The queen's personal secretary wrote back saying the issue had been referred to Canterbury, according to Dieffenbacher-Krall. Williams replied about six months later saying that while he was sympathetic to the call of repudiation, the Church of England did not exist during the time that the doctrine was being formulated.

Still, with the General Convention resolution, "we've done something that really prompts healing and reconciliation between our church and indigenous people," said Dieffenbacher-Krall, who said he first learned about the doctrine in the 1990s while working with Indians in Maine on land claim and pollution issues.

Steve Newcomb, a Lenape and Shawnee Indian and scholar whose research on the Doctrine of Discovery both Chaffee and Dieffenbacher-Krall credit with raising their awareness of the issue, praised convention's action and said in addition to the measures called for in the resolution, he hoped to see even larger results.

"I'm hoping that this issue will not only make people take notice of the maltreatment of the indigenous nations and peoples," but that Christians will also "look at how the Doctrine of Discovery is reflective of a mentality and type of behavior that is so destructive to the ecological systems of the planet."

Indigenous peoples' way of living on the earth can provide models of sustainability that have been ignored for centuries, Newcomb said.