Newcomb: What would Vine Deloria say?

In 1972, Vine Deloria Jr. wrote “An Open Letter to the Heads of the Christian Churches in America,” in which he challenged the Doctrine of Discovery. The essay appears in the book “For This Land” (1999).

Deloria pointed out that after the “discovery” of the “New World,” certain “questions of a theological nature arose. Who were these newly discovered peoples? What rights did they possess? How were they to be treated?”

Eventually, Deloria noted, a “bargain was struck. … among the Christian nations of western Europe, that whoever discovered lands inhabited by non-Christian peoples would have the exclusive right to ‘extinguish’ such [Indian] title as against any other Christian nation.”

Indian country would be wise to follow Deloria’s early lead by attaching the word ‘Christian’ to the Doctrine of Discovery.

What is the contemporary consequence of this form of thinking? Deloria put the matter quite succinctly: “The present position of the United States is that it holds our lands and communities as its wards. When this doctrine is traced to its origin it lands comfortably within the Doctrine of Discovery.”

He further said that “the United States claims its rights over us not by right of conquest but by right of having succeeded to the rights of Great Britain to extinguish our titles to land. We are completely helpless to ever maintain our lands, our communities, and cultures so long as the major reason that they are protected is to enable the United States to one day extinguish them as its legal right against the other Christian nations.”

What seems striking about this particular essay of Mr. Deloria’s is his willingness to be historically accurate by identifying the Doctrine of Discovery with the term “Christian,” in keeping with the earliest documents on the subject.

The problems that continue to afflict Indian country, said Deloria, are the result of the Doctrine of Discovery never having been “disclaimed either by the governments of the Christian nations of the world or by the leaders of the Christian churches of the world. And more especially [it has not been disclaimed] by the leaders of the Christian churches of this country.”

Finally, 37 years later, the recent Episcopal Church resolution “Repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery,” signals the beginning of the kind of shift that Deloria was advocating from church leadership.

Deloria ended his essay with some poignant questions. “At what point can we as peoples of creation look to Christianity to demand from the political structures of the world our dignity as human beings? At what point can we become men and not mere appendages of the Christian Doctrine of Discovery.”

Recently, a tragic story appeared in the New York Times describing how a number of Christian families in Pakistan had been attacked in their homes and some people burned alive, “just because they were Christians,” or stated conversely, just because they were not Moslems.

An identical form of reasoning is found in the use of the Doctrine of Christian Discovery. In applying that doctrine, the U.S. Supreme Court reasoned that Indian “rights to complete sovereignty, as independent nations, were necessarily diminished,” just because the Indians were not Christians at the time Christian Europeans first arrived to the continent, and just because the lands in the Americas were not under “Christian rule” at that time.

Deloria pointed out that after the ‘discovery’ of the ‘New World,’ certain ‘questions of a theological nature arose.’

According to the version of history put forth by Chief Justice John Marshall and the Supreme Court in Johnson v. M’Intosh, in 1823, Christian European commentators and political actors conceived of Christian sovereigns as possessing a form of sovereignty of much greater magnitude and weight than the sovereignty of American Indian nations.

Through royal charters and decrees, Christian sovereigns charged their adventuring subjects with the task of locating lands anywhere in the world that were inhabited by “heathens and infidels,” and that were “previously unknown to all Christian people.” Once the located non-Christian lands had been formally claimed by a Christian sovereign, the Christian sovereign regarded the non-Christians as having a political status much lower than that of a Christian sovereign. Chief Justice Marshall expressed this point in Johnson v. M’Intosh by saying the Christian Europeans “asserted the ultimate dominion to be in themselves.”

Looking back on Deloria’s letter we can see that he might have placed the word “discovery” in quotation marks as a way of calling into question the claim that Christian Europeans could have actually “discovered” lands already well known to, and rightfully belonging to, the Native nations living in sacred relationship with those lands.

In any case, we can only admire his insight. Indian country would be wise to follow Deloria’s early lead by attaching the word “Christian” to the Doctrine of Discovery. By doing so, we will be writing, thinking and speaking of that doctrine in keeping with the original royal and papal documents (and the mentality) from which that doctrine emerged in Western Christendom, and eventually found its way into U.S. Indian law and policy, where it remains to this day.

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