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Maine Episcopalians decry 'doctrine of discovery'

BANGOR, Maine - In 1496, Henry VII, King of England, authorized John Cabot to sail to ''undiscovered'' non-Christian lands, subjugate their inhabitants, confiscate their resources and claim the land in the name of the English crown. More than 500 years later, a group of Christians are asking the current English monarch to renounce the ''doctrine of discovery'' that resulted in the genocide, colonization and dispossession of the indigenous peoples of the ''new world.''

Maine Episcopalians passed a resolution at their annual convention Oct. 26 calling for Queen Elizabeth and the Archbishop of Canterbury ''to disavow and rescind the claimed validity of the doctrine of discovery against all peoples, specifically as it is set forth in the 1496 Royal Charter granted to John Cabot and his sons by King Henry VII, and all other doctrines that have been relied thereon for the dispossession of lands and the subjugation of non-Christian peoples from their initial use to the present.''

The doctrine of discovery was a principle of international law developed in a series of 15th century papal bulls and 16th century charters by European monarchs. The doctrine essentially gave white Europeans the green light to go forth and claim the lands of non-Christian peoples and enslave their inhabitants - if other white Europeans had not already done so. The doctrine institutionalized the competition between European countries in their quest for colonies and resources.

In recent years, various tribal members and groups around the country have asked the pope to rescind the 15th century papal bulls, but Maine's Episcopal diocese is the first in the United States to make a similar request to the British monarchy and Church of England.

Henry's charter authorized Cabot and his sons and heirs to ''discover and investigate whatsoever islands, countries, regions or provinces of heathens and infidels, in whatsoever part of the world placed, which before this time were unknown to all Christians.''

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While converting the ''heathens and infidels'' to Christianity was part of the plan, the enterprise was mostly a business deal. Once discovered, Cabot could then ''conquer, occupy and possess'' the lands and expropriate ''all the fruits, profits, emoluments, commodities, gains and revenues.'' Cabot would deduct his expenses from the gross revenues, pay Henry one-fifth of the net profits, and keep the rest. As an extra incentive, Cabot could conduct his import/export business tax-free.

The Episcopalian resolution was presented to the convention by the church's Committee on Indian Relations, a group that formed in the early 1990s to support the state's four Native tribes. The 22-member committee includes six members of the Penobscot Indian Nation.

The resolution also requires that a similar resolution is submitted to the church's General Convention in 2009 for its consideration, according to the church Web site.

John Dieffenbacher-Krall, a member of the Committee on Indian Relations and the executive director of the Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission, brought the resolution forward to the convention. ''As an Episcopalian, I believe our church should acknowledge its role in perpetuating and acceptance of this morally repugnant doctrine of discovery. The doctrine of discovery gave European nations moral cover to invade the Western Hemisphere and commit unspeakable acts,'' Dieffenbacher-Krall said.

While he does not want the church ''to wallow in guilt,'' he said he was concerned that the doctrine of discovery is still used in the country's legal system.

''I want us to recognize it is wrong and it should never, ever be used in any court decision or policy when addressing issues affecting indigenous peoples anywhere in the world,'' he said. ''My ultimate goal is to forge a worldwide consensus that the doctrine of discovery is morally bankrupt, evil, and should be condemned whenever it is used to justify the domination of more powerful countries over smaller ones.''