Moving toward acknowledging some brutal history
April 12, 2023
Recently here on the blog, I made relatively brief note that the Vatican has issued a statement repudiating what has become known as the "Doctrine of Discovery," which, based on papal bulls, gave European invaders permission to take over any lands they "discovered" and turn the Indigenous residents of those lands into Christians.
I wrote then that this was an important development -- however many centuries late it has come -- that deserves a little more treatment than I was able to give it at the time.
So today I link you to this Religion News Service story about the repudiation and Indigenous reaction to it.
A key point to remember is that the doctrine was evidence of unmerited European hubris and the arrogant willingness to consider Indigenous people to be what our Declaration of Independence calls them, "merciless Indian savages."
That said, the history of settler colonialists' relations with the people they found already living on this land is complicated, meaning that once in a great while the invaders treated Native people with something less than contempt and forged something like a working relationship with some of them. Two books to read (I've just finished them and recommend them) that fill in some details are Indigenous Continent: The Epic Contest for North America, by Pekka Hämäläinen, and Covered with Night: A Story of Murder and Indigenous Justice in Early America, by Nicole Eustace.
Eustace refers to the ambiguity in such relationships when she writes this: "Settler colonialists can never decide if they are on the verge of finding a new Eden -- a place where wealth comes almost without toil and all the lush country is theirs for the taking -- or if they have ventured to the very gates of hell, to a land where labor is forced by lash and land is seized by musket, where each person has a price and the cost of success is the surrender of every Christian ideal."
Similarly, the RNS story to which I've linked you reports this about one Indigenous leader's response to the Vatican's move:
“I just think it’s fascinating and it’s really great because what it does is it catapults the issue to the world stage in a very prominent manner,” said (Steven) Newcomb (who is Shawnee and Lenape), author of the 2008 book Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery and co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute.
But Newcomb, like many Indigenous activists and organizations that have been outspoken about the continuing impact of the Doctrine of Discovery, has mixed feelings about the Vatican’s repudiation.
“They haven’t even begun to come to terms with the true nature of what we’re actually talking about,” he said.
The RNS story also quotes the National Congress of American Indians this way about the Vatican action: “We thank the Creator that Indigenous peoples are strong, resilient, full of wisdom, faith, hope, and love, and we stand ready to have difficult conversations about the future and to work together to build off of today’s step forward to bring about meaningful positive change to our people and nations, and for the healing, reconciliation and restoration of all peoples across the globe.”
There's no doubt that the Vatican has done the right thing by repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery. It's a small and late step, but perhaps it can point the way toward something that would feel like justice to Native Americans and Indigenous people in other lands.
Beyond that, the repudiation is a good model for the idea of repentance, which in the best of cases can be followed by restitution and reconciliation. In other words, peacemaking. But without what the aggrieved consider justice, no peace is ultimately possible.
(The map here today shows the territory once occupied by 86 Indigenous tribes. But it's obviously incomplete for several reasons. First, the nomadic nature of some tribes makes it hard to locate them in a particular spot at a particular time. Besides that, today there are some 575 or so federally recognized Indian tribes. One way to know which tribes considered which parts of what is now the U.S. as ancestral land is to use the app called Native Land.)
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THE U.S. HAS ROOM FOR ALL DIFFERENT FAITHS
A Baptist pastor writes here that he wants no part of the U.S. if -- as Christian nationalists propose -- it excludes people from other faith traditions, including the writer's Jewish cousins. Here is his cogent main point: "Christian nationalism is the most potent threat to this nation’s democracy and diversity. But as Christ has taught us, love is more powerful than tyranny. We can defeat the tyranny of Christian nationalism through love for our siblings who live and believe differently than we do."
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P.S.: Recently I watched a webinar on capital punishment that I found helpful and was especially taken by the passion with which speakers expressed their views. Here is a Good Faith Media story about it with extensive quotes from those speakers.