NEW YORK – A groundbreaking report examining the roots of Christian domination over indigenous peoples and their lands was released this week at the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.
North American Representative to the Permanent Forum Tonya Gonnella Frichner, an attorney and founder of the American Indian Law Alliance, presented a preliminary study on the “Doctrine of Discovery” and its historical impacts on indigenous peoples, with a focus on how it became part of United States laws.
“The first thing indigenous peoples share is the experience of having been invaded by those who treated us without compassion because they considered us to be less than human,” said Frichner, a citizen of the Onondaga Nation serving her first term on the 16-member UNPFII.
“Dehumanization leads to the second thing indigenous peoples share in common: Being treated on the basis of the belief that those who invaded our territories have a right of lordship or dominance over our existence and, therefore, have the right to take, grant, and dispose of our lands, territories, and resources without our permission or consent.”
Frichner said human rights violations faced by indigenous peoples can all be traced to the Doctrine of Discovery and its interpretive framework which has been used for five centuries to take Native lands.
It has also been cited in U.S. Supreme Court land claims cases decided against Indian nations, including the 1955 ruling Tee Hit Ton Indians v. United States, and the 2005 decision in City of Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation of New York.
The Doctrine of Discovery was among Vatican mandates dating back to the 15th century, called papal bulls, that declared Christian monarchs had the right to claim superior title over land and territories that they “discovered.”
The claimed right of “dominion” over Native peoples was based on the thinking that non-Christians were “heathens and uncivilized savages,” with no, or limited rights, to land.
The Vatican’s Doctrine of Discovery was based on the premise that all non-Christian land belonged to no one because no Christians were living there and no Christian monarch or lord had yet claimed dominion. Once Christian monarchies like Spain or France claimed the right of dominion, that claim was transferred to political successors over centuries.
“Indian land rights have been characterized in U.S. law as nothing more than a permissive right of occupancy or permission from the whites to occupy their own Indian lands,” Frichner said.
There were theologians who did not agree that Christian discovery could give dominion over and title to non-Christian lands. The issue was debated at length in the early 1550s in Spain with no input from indigenous peoples, she said.
It was a debate among Christian Europeans about whether the Indians of the Americas were human.
“Clearly, (we) have joined the debate by declaring definitively that we are human beings. However, for more than five centuries, the doctrines of discovery and dehumanization have been institutionalized, and this is the context of the work we are doing on the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples,” Frichner said.
The study focused on the history of the United States, and points out that the Doctrine of Discovery had been officially incorporated into U.S. Indian policies in the 1823 Supreme Court ruling Johnson v. M’Intosh.
Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall identified the royal charters of Great Britain pertaining to North America as the source of the argument that “discovery gave title” to the government by whose authority the “discovery” was made.
The royal charter issued to John Cabot in 1496 authorized Cabot and his sons to seek out “isles, countries, and regions of the heathen and infidel, which before this time have been unknown to all Christian people.”
This and similar language were cited as the basis for the ruling in Johnson v. M’Intosh that the United States had the ultimate dominion over Indian peoples and lands.
Frichner said the report is a first step in investigating the global scope of the Doctrine of Discovery as a key source of violations of human rights of Native peoples.
A comprehensive study will provide the opportunity to understand that all the struggles that indigenous peoples are engaged in are rooted in “the claim by one people of a right of dominance over another.”
Frichner said the discriminatory legal framework that exists today is directly tied to the Doctrine of Discovery which has resulted in the dispossession and impoverishment of indigenous peoples and unlimited resource extraction from their lands.
Kuriakose Bharanikulangara, observer for the Holy See, responded to Frichner’s report by saying that the papal bulls that paved the way for European expansion had been abrogated over centuries. He insisted the Church had upheld the rights of indigenous peoples to their ancestral lands, regardless of whether the inhabitants were Christian or not.