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.
Archbishop John Ireland is a well known name in St. Paul. He was the first Archbishop of St. Paul and held that post for 30 years (1888–1918). The John Ireland Boulevard runs between the state Capitol and the St. Paul Cathedral.
A little know part of Ireland’s story was his successful effort to colonize parts of western Minnesota with Irish Catholics. He created the Catholic Colonization Bureau of St. Paul in 1876, just after he became a bishop here.
Taking a broader lens, Ireland’s story is about one aspect of how the Doctrine of Discovery played out in Minnesota. The Doctrine of Discovery is the forerunner of Manifest Destiny. It refers to the religious and legal justification used by Europe’s monarchs to claim and colonize lands occupied by indigenous peoples, seize their property and forcibly, convert, enslave, or remove them. The Doctrine has its roots in 15th century papal edicts.
In this 19th Century story, Minnesota lands had been cleared of indigenous people after the Dakota-U.S. War of 1862. The land was now ready for colonization, and Ireland had a plan. Continue reading →
On this day in history, Feb. 7, 1955, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling based on the Christian Doctrine of Discovery to deny the Tee-Hit-Ton Indians any compensation for the timber the U.S. government allowed to be sold off their lands.
In the ruling Tee-Hit-Ton Indians v. United States, the Court used 15th Century reasoning to exert domination over “an ignorant and dependent race,” treating them not as land owners but as mere tenants. These tenants, the ruling said, are allowed to stay there only “as a matter of grace” by the United States.
Protecting Our Sacred Water: A Gathering at the Mississippi Headwaters Sept. 21-23 sponsored by Stop Line 3, Minnesota Interfaith Power and Light, Honor the Earth, and the Minnesota Council of Churches.
Film Screening: “The Eagle and the Condor — From Standing Rock with Love,” Oct. 8 at Augsburg University.
Dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery Study Group; Nine weekly sessions from Oct. 7 – Dec. 9, at Faith Mennonite Church in Minneapolis.
CNN Anchor Poppy Harlow interviewed billionaire Warren Buffett on Monday and the Doctrine of Discovery was on full display.
Harlow pressed Buffett on whether he thought the country was due for a recession soon. Here’s his response:
America has been on a 242-year run. I mean it just gets interrupted a little bit. But if you are looking for a run, just look around. There was nothing here in 1776 and now look what we’ve got.
The Doctrine of Discovery refers to the religious and legal justification Europe’s colonial powers used to claim indigenous lands and forcibly convert or enslave indigenous peoples. The Doctrine has its roots in 15th century papal edicts and the U.S. Supreme Court adopted a secular version of the Doctrine into U.S. case law 1823. The Doctrine of Discovery’s world view was that if there were no Christians on the land, the land was basically empty and could be claimed. Or, in Buffett’s words: “There was nothing here.”
The General Convention of the Episcopal Church is meeting in Texas this week, and today it passed a resolution supporting the Anishinaabe in exerting their treaty rights in opposition to Enbridge Line 3. (Saw the news on a Facebook Post by Rev. John Floberg, an Episcopal priest from North Dakota who stood with Standing Rock in opposing the Dakota Access Pipeline.)
The resolution says in part:
Resolved: That the Episcopal Church provide its historic moral standing among the indigenous peoples of Minnesota to stand with our congregations St. John’s in Onigum and St. Peter’s in Cass Lake, the Episcopal Church in Minnesota, our ecumenical partners and tribal governments to oppose the threat of pollution to sacred lands and the manoomin (wild rice) that has been given to these people to sustain them and provide a sovereign food source that nourishes body and soul. …
As a church we support prayerful, peaceful and non-violent approaches to express our concerns of the risks to the environment and the people of these territories. As a church we call on all elected officials to guide and direct their conduct to be above reproach. As a church we call upon all levels of government to support and honor treaty obligations. We believe the Ojibwe Bands of northern Minnesota are right to assert their opposition to the pipeline under the treaties that were made on their behalf by their ancestors.
Anton Treuer, Professor of Ojibwe at the University of Minnesota-Bemidji, succinctly explained why community conversations around race lose momentum.
On one hand, those conversation can feel self-congratulatory, more a pat-on-the-back event, he said. That can be frustrating for people who came hoping to dig in on difficult topics around race and the racism that exist today. On the other hand, if the conversation gets too intense, some people get uncomfortable and just walk away.
Treuer has been trying a third way through a model called Courageous Conversations. And on a recent night, about 50 people, mostly white, mostly older, turned out for a conversation called “What does reconciliation look like?” at Bemidji’s First Lutheran Church.
The Courageous Conversations model is about engaging in difficult conversations but in a way that respects people’s stories, Treuer said.
“This isn’t about beating people up for the sins of their ancestors,” Treuer said. “We all landed here in an imperfect world and we don’t get a blank canvas to start painting. But at the same time, paint we must if we want to have a different picture.” …
We can’t get to “Healed” and skip “Healing.” We can’t get to “Reconciled” and skip all the Reconciling.” Ultimately we are going to have to do some heavy lifting: Everybody.
Treuer has been holding these conversations since at least 2014, (see this Bemidji Pioneer story). Last fall, Bemidji Truth and Reconciliation partnered with Peacemaker Resources to announce a year-long series of community dialogues titled: “Building the Bridge: Taking Courageous Action on Racial Reconciliation,” (see this Bemidji Pioneer story.)
This work is a powerful witness in the north woods, where tensions can run high around treaty rights and race relations. Treuer recalled a tribal boycott of Bemidji businesses back in the 1960s following a racial incident.
This is long-term and difficult work that starts with relationship building. The Bemidji Truth and Reconciliation events are no different than the work we at Healing Minnesota Stories are trying to do — create dialogue, understanding and healing between Native and non-Native people, particularly in the context of our religious communities. This work deserves both recognition and support.
For more information, here are the Bemidji Truth and Reconciliation’s website and Facebook page.