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Newcomb: Looking back on a movement

When my friend Birgil Kills Straight (Oglala Lakota) and I founded the Indigenous Law Institute in 1992, and began our campaign to call upon Pope John Paul II to formally revoke the Inter Caetera papal bull of May 4, 1493, we had no way to foresee the momentum the issue would eventually achieve 18 years later.

The papal bull revocation first occurred to me at a hearing held by Senator Inouye in Portland, Ore., in early 1992. Senator Inouye was taking testimony regarding the American Indian Religious Freedom Act and how that joint resolution was providing no protection for American Indian sacred sites and spiritually significant places.

Now, nearly two decades after Birgil Kills Straight first took me under his wing the issue of the Vatican papal bulls has been reinvigorated.

At one point in the day I was talking to my friend Mary Wood (a gifted law professor at the University of Oregon) in a hallway outside the area where people were making their statements. I was expressing my sense of frustration at the fact that the Christian religious basis of the Johnson v. M’Intosh ruling was not being made part of the discussion.

Suddenly, a thought occurred to me. “You know,” I said to Mary, “next year is going to be the 500th anniversary of the Inter Caetera papal bull of 1493. What we ought to do is start a campaign calling on the pope to formally revoke that document as a way of educating people about that document and its relationship to the Johnson v. M’Intosh decision.”

“That’s a great idea!” Mary said in her ever cheerful voice.

I felt truly inspired by the magnitude of the idea and later went for a walk in the park. It was an unusually warm and windy night, and the wind was blowing powerfully through the tall pine trees. The darkness and the night air felt exhilarating.

Later, when I walked back to where a powwow was taking place as the culmination of the day’s event, a friend of mine walked up to me and said: “Hey, Steve, the Catholic theologian Mathew Fox is speaking at a church just down the street. You ought to go and tell him about your idea to revoke the papal bull.”

Thinking that this was a great idea, we walked down to the large stone church and went inside. The place was packed. Even the upper level was full.

I stood with my back to a large pillar and assessed the situation. I quickly decided that I needed to become bold and take the floor with my question, or I would never get a chance to ask it.

I felt electrified by my walk, and at the precise moment when Mathew Fox finished answering a previous question, I stepped away from the pillar and began in a confident voice, “Mr. Fox!”

The papal bull revocation first occurred to me at a hearing held by Senator Inouye in Portland, Ore., in early 1992.

“In 1493, Pope Alexander VI issued a papal bull that called for ‘barbarous nations’ to be ‘subjugated,’ for ‘the propagation of the Christian empire.’ Three years later, in 1496, King Henry VII of England imitated the papal bull by issuing a royal charter to John Cabot and his sons authorizing them to ‘seek out, discover, and find, whatsoever islands, countries and regions of the heathen and infidel, which before this time have been unknown to all Christian people.’

“In 1823, the United States Supreme Court handed down the decision Johnson v. M’Intosh, in which Chief Justice John Marshall looked back at those documents and said that the discovery by ‘Christian people’ of lands inhabited by ‘natives, who were heathens’ had the right to assume the ‘ultimate dominion to be in themselves and to take over and control the lands and lives of Indian nations. The question I have is this: Given that next year is its 500th anniversary, do you think that Pope John Paul II would formally revoke the Inter Caetera papal bull of 1493?’”

When I finished my question, I was amazed when the entire church burst into loud, enthusiastic applause. Without pausing even one moment, Mathew Fox said: “Well, I don’t know if he would, but I certainly think he should, and, furthermore, I think he should take all that gold out of St. Peter’s Cathedral and give it back to the Indians who they stole it from to begin with.” (No wonder he was tossed out of the Catholic Church a few years later).

Now, nearly two decades after Birgil Kills Straight first took me under his wing and began taking me to places like Italy, Switzerland, Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, and after Chief Oren Lyons also began to publicize the idea through the Traditional Circle of Elders and Youth, the issue of the Vatican papal bulls has been reinvigorated.

I needed to become bold and take the floor with my question, or I would never get a chance to ask it.

The issue has been taken up by John Dieffenbacher-Krall, of the Episcopal Church in Maine, and by the powerful Episcopal Church resolution “Repudiating the Doctrine of Christian Discovery,” adopted in July 2009.

The Haudenosaunee delegation that traveled in December to the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Melbourne, Australia (and so graciously and generously sponsored my trip), successfully revitalized the issue on the world stage. Through the efforts of others such as Lyons, Chief Jake Swamp, Tonya Frischner and Chris Peters – and of non-indigenous supporters such as religious studies professors Phil Arnold and Mary McDonald, and legal studies emeritus professor, Peter d’Errico – we are now witnessing an increasing global awareness of the dehumanizing role the Vatican papal bulls and the Doctrine of Christian Discovery have played in the oppression and dispossession of indigenous nations and peoples. Accordingly, it is now time to redouble our efforts.

Steven Newcomb, Shawnee/Lenape, is indigenous law research coordinator in the education department of the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation in San Diego County, co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, and author of “Pagans in the Promise Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery” (Fulcrum Publishing, 2008).