Strip Down the Statues, but also Shred the Doctrine of Discovery

Updated: Jun 13

In the most recent development of the Black Lives Matter uprising, statues commemorating Confederate soldiers and colonizers have been defaced, taken down, or (my personal favorite) beheaded. While these gestures are a direct middle finger to colonialism, genocide, and the white supremacy, we need to consider uprooting the legal sanctions of colonial constructs on Indigenous lands.


Beheaded Christopher Columbus statue in Boston, MA. Image from Brietbart.


Columbus has been a long debated hero in the Americas. Despite his brutal treatment of Indigenous people, there is a National holiday celebrating his "discovery of America." To descendants of Italian immigrants, he is a hero because his "discovery" solidified Italian Americans' place in an immigrant hostile America (not much has changed). In the past several decades, Indigenous people and allies have brought attention to the fact that Columbus is a symbol of mass genocide and slavery. He cut off the hands of Taino people, murdered their babies, and gave his men Native sex slaves as young as nine years old. A number of institutions and states have already declared the celebration of Indigenous People's Day over Columbus Day.



A statue of Belgian ruler King Leopold II was removed in Antwerp, Brussels last week by anti-racism protesters after it was splashed with red paint. King Leopold II is perhaps one of the most brutal colonizers in world history. He is nicknamed "Butcher of the Congo," and has a great deal of blood on his hands. He is known for cutting off the arms of enslaved Congolese people on rubber plantations, and his regime is responsible for the murder of millions of Africans in the late 19th century.


Plantation owner pointing to severed limb of an enslaved Congolese boy.


We need to deeply examine the role that the Catholic church has had in mobilizing centuries of brutal conquests against the world's Indigenous populations. The papal bulls in the mid-1400's allowed Christian explorers to claim land in the name of Christian rulers. The Dum Diversas and Romanus Pontifex authorized European explorers to convert, destroy, enslave all non-Christian populations. An excerpt from the Dum Diversas:


"--to invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens and pagans whatsoever, and other enemies of Christ wheresoever placed, and the kingdoms, dukedoms, principalities, dominions, possessions, and all movable and immovable goods whatsoever held and possessed by them and to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery, and to apply and appropriate to himself and his successors the kingdoms, dukedoms, counties, principalities, dominions, possessions, and goods, and to convert them to his and their use and profit--"

Mark Charles, Independent Presidential Candidate and member of the Navajo Nation, has spent a large portion of his career on addressing the need to destroy The Doctrine of Discovery. In his book "Unsettling Truths," he further discusses the lasting impact that this has had on Indigenous populations. He elaborated in an interview with Faith and Leadership that, "-- European nations both in Africa to colonize and enslave people, and by Columbus to land [America] in this “New World,” which is already inhabited by millions, and claim to discover it. You cannot discover lands already inhabited. That’s called stealing. The fact that we refer to what Columbus did as “discovery” reveals the implicit racial bias, which is that Native people, people of color, aren’t fully human."


Charles also emphasizes the fact that the doctrine is part of the framework the documents that lay the foundation of the United States. He highlights the paradox in the phrase. "all men are created equal," and yet the Declaration of Independence refers to Native Americans as, "merciless Indian Savages." In the Constitution, he notes that women and Natives are not mentioned, and enslaved Africans are considered three-fifths of a person, thus concluding that "We the People" does not actually mean all the people. "The People" refers to white land-owning men.


The first reference of the Doctrine of Discovery was in 1823 by Justice John Marshall in the Supreme Court proceeding Johnson v. McIntosh. It granted European settlers the right to land titles as the conquering nation. It is important to note that the concept of land ownership is Eurocentric, and Native Americans do not recognize land ownership in the same way. Land titles by occupancy and ancestral ties are considered inferior to the right by discovery. So although Native Americans occupied the land first, Europeans were considered the true title holders.


This case has been used as a precedent to continue to dispute Native American claims to their ancestral lands. Periods in American history such as the Manifest Destiny, which was popularized by journalist John O'Sullivan, prompted the excitement of American settlers to continue western expansion. The premise of the Manifest Destiny was that God gave the United States a mission to expand their territory to spread faith. The Doctrine of Discovery has been referred to as "the International Law of Colonialism," by Robert J. Miller and Sandra Day O'Connor, law professors at Arizona State University.


The Doctrine of Discovery was used as recently as 2005 by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to reject the claim of the Oneidas, one of the six Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) nations, to their territory. The tribe bought back their original lands, and attempted to invoke their sovereignty by denying to pay taxes to New York. Authors of Native American History: A History stated in their summary of events that, "Tribal sovereignty, the Court implied, was a quaint and antiquated notion not worthy of its consideration. The passage of time had made history irrelevant."


Miller and O'Connor outlined the ten elements that constitute the Doctrine of Discovery, and how colonizer societies have used it against Indigenous populations across the globe. The ten elements are: first discovery, actual occupancy and current possession, preemption/European title, Indian/Native title, tribal limited sovereign and commercial rights, contiguity, Terra nullius, Christianity, civilization, and conquest.


Several denominations of Christianity have repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery. However, Mark Charles argues that repudiating, or condemning the the doctrine as heresy, is not enough. He emphasizes that repudiating the doctrine is not only a theological action, but also has legal implications. Charles eloquently highlights the performative nature of denouncing the doctrine, but lacking the willingness to atone for the sins of the church by putting action behind it. True repentance would be returning the land to the people that it was stolen from. Learn more about other actions to take to dismantle the doctrine of discovery.


"The challenging part -- and I actually warn people to think very carefully before they repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery -- is that it’s not just a theological action. The Doctrine of Discovery has become a legal instrument. And it’s the instrument that props up land titles. So if you are going to repudiate this doctrine but are not willing to give up your land, whose title is based on this doctrine, then you probably shouldn’t repudiate it."

Indigenous populations continue to endure the effects of the Doctrine of Discovery. This document is responsible for colonization, genocide, and centuries of racism and discrimination against Indigenous people and their belief systems. It has been used around the world to justify the seizure of Indigenous lands in the name of Christian European nations. Recently, a Mayan spiritual leader was tortured for ten hours, and burned alive for practicing what was perceived as witchcraft. The Guardian acknowledges Domingo Choc Che as a traditional herbs expert, and a Mayan medicine man. He participated in a number of research projects in collaboration with several universities, including University of London, Zurich University, and University of the Valley. Indigenous spirituality is sacred, and misunderstood. These misunderstandings can be deadly, and are the reason why we must take further action to abolish the Doctrine of Discovery. We cannot ignore the foundations of hatred and bigotry against Indigenous spiritual practices established by Catholicism, and ingrained into the framework of our justice system.



Learn more about actions to support Domingo Choc Che on NIM AJPU's website.


Tear down the statues of Christopher Columbus, King Leopold II, and the rest of the world's conquistadors and colonizers; banish the Confederate flags and other symbols of racism and oppression. Nonetheless, all of these actions are empty if we do not seek to destroy the source of several centuries of crimes against Indigenous American and African populations. This document is the source that justified the genocide and slavery of millions of human beings in the name of Catholicism. If the Doctrine of Discovery is still being invoked to justify the theft of Indigenous land and the dehumanization of Indigenous people and their spiritual practices, then there will be no everlasting justice by symbolic acts alone.



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