For Indigenous Peoples, Is Full Participation in “We the People” Progress or Assimilation?

Native Leaders Offer Differing Critiques of the Doctrine of Discovery and Different Paths Forward

Steve Newcomb (Shawnee, Lenape) and Mark Charles (Navajo/Dutch) are both outspoken critics of the Doctrine of Discovery, an expression of Christian superiority and the forerunner to Manifest Destiny. Their critiques take them in different directions. Newcomb emphasizes that Native peoples and nations need to move toward a free, independent and sovereign existence, while Charles emphasizes moving toward indigenous equality in American society.

This clash of views came into focus after Charles made a TED Talk on the Doctrine of Discovery earlier this year and Newcomb criticized it in an editorial.

It should come as no surprise that indigenous leaders hold differing opinions. Yet as non-indigenous people look to follow indigenous leadership in truth telling and healing around dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery, such differing views create a challenge to understanding what it means to be an ally.

Columbus claimed lands based on the Doctrine of Discovery, leading to indigenous genocide.

The Doctrine of Discovery refers to the religious and legal justification used by Europe’s 15th Century European explorers to claim lands occupied by indigenous peoples on behalf of their monarchs. The Doctrine blessed the seizure of indigenous lands and brutalization of indigenous bodies,  saying they could be forcibly converted, enslaved, or vanquished. The Doctrine has its roots in papal edicts granting Spain and Portugal permission to seize foreign lands as long as no baptized Christians had prior claims.

Put bluntly, the Doctrine of Discovery was a justification for genocide. Essentially a religious doctrine, it’s the founding document for much of U.S. land titles.  (More on it here.)

It’s impossible to undo the Doctrine of Discovery’s harm, but there are important conversations moving across the country about healing and repair from this horrific history. Much of that work is indigenous led. Many mainline Christian denominations are asking themselves about their roles and responsibilities in dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery. (Here is a list of the denominations that have issued statements on it.)

In a January TED talk titled: “We the People: The three most misunderstood words,” Charles critiques the Doctrine of Discovery and calls for a U.S. Truth and Conciliation Commission, following Canada’s example. Charles says that the United States needs to acknowledge “the vile racism, sexism, colonialism, and white supremacy that our Founding Fathers embedded deep into our foundations.”

Charles concludes that if the United States engages in this work in earnest, “we might be able to leave a different legacy for our children … a legacy that for the first time ‘We the People’ might mean all the people.”

Newcomb critiques Charles’ TED Talk in an IndianZ commentary titled: “We the people of the dominated Native nations.”

[Charles] repeated encouragement to broaden the category “We the People” to include Native Peoples is actually a plan for assimilation that the U.S. government has been working on for generations. … Charles’ argument in favor of American Indian assimilation is in keeping with the very doctrine of discovery he claims to oppose….

Rather than becoming part of We the People, Newcomb advocates for “the right of Native nations to live free from oppression, so that someday our nations could live an existence free and independent of U.S. domination.”

Anyone who has seen Sheldon Wolfchild’s documentary: The Doctrine of Discovery: Unmasking the Domination Code, knows Newcomb. He is one of the foremost scholars on the Christian Doctrine of Discovery and his been speaking on it for decades. His scholarship and his book “Pagans in the Promised Land” give Wolfchild’s film its intellectual foundation.

In his IndianZ commentary, Newcomb writes:

What Charles failed to say in his talk is that the doctrine of discovery is premised on the claim by Christian nations that they had located (“discovered”) the lands of “heathens” and “infidels,” for the benefit and profit of the Christian world. That way of thinking is premised on the idea that Christian nations supposedly had the right to establish a system of domination over any non-Christian lands on the planet and over the non-Christians living there.

Charles condemned the doctrine of discovery as racist rather than a Christian religious phenomenon.

Charles serves on the board of the Christian Community Development Association, consults with the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship (CICW) and is a founding partner of a national conference for Native students called “Would Jesus Eat Frybread?” according to his biography on the Sojourners web page. He also lived for 11 years with his wife and family on the Navajo Reservation.

Charles also has been highly critical of the Christian Church and its role in oppressing marginalized peoples. (A blog published a year ago by The Institute on Religion & Democracy had the headline: “Mark Charles: Church Has ‘Prostituted Itself Out to the Empire’”)

In his TED Talk, Charles borrows from George Erasmus, an aboriginal leader from Canada, who argues that without common memory, there can be no real community.

Charles vision is one of creating common memory. “We have a White majority that remembers a history, a mythological history of discovery, expansion, exceptionalism and opportunities,” he said. “And we have communities of color that have the lived experience of stolen lands, broken treaties, slavery, Jim Crow laws, boarding schools, ethnic cleansing, genocide, Indian removal, interment camps, segregation, mass incarceration and families separated at our borders.”

At our core, Americans would rather believe the United State is racist and sexist in spite of our foundations, rather than seeing is as part of our foundation, Charles said: “And we don’t know what to do with that.”

“African Americans and women will never be included as equal until we deal with the racism and sexism embedded in our foundations,”Charles said. “Native Americans, my people, will never be included in “We the People” until as a nation we deal with the Doctrine of Discovery and our dehumanizing legal precedents for land title.”

So what does it mean to be a non-indigenous ally in dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery? It means understanding there are differing views within indigenous communities and honoring those truths. It means this work is messy; engaging in these conflicts is part of our learning and growth.

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