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Conscious Elders Network

Introduction to the 

Declaration on the Doctrine of Discovery

For several months, we Elder Activists for Social Justice Team in CEN have been studying the systemic racism and oppression that Indigenous/Native peoples endure in the United States today, and the roots of this injustice in history.  We learned, some of us for the first time, about the Doctrine of Discovery dating from the 15th century and still enshrined in law today. 

This international legal principle, arising from as early as the Middle Ages in European Christendom, has justified the subjugation of non-Christian nations and peoples and “the propagation of the Christian empire” (Pope Alexander VI, 15th century) throughout the world. Retroactively labeled the “Doctrine of Discovery”, this “doctrine” came to be codified as law through several Papal Bulls, particularly the Papal Bull Romanus Pontifex of 1454 and the Papal Bull Inter Caetera of 1493 (right after Columbus “discovered America”), the latter bull dividing parts of the New World between Spain and Portugal and advancing the already approved slave-trade. 

Over the past 500 years the Doctrine of Discovery has established patterns of domination and dehumanization that have become institutionalized in language, thought, and behavior in our cultural and legal systems. The transference of this “doctrine” into the U.S. judicial system occurred in 1823 (Johnson & Grahm's Lessee v. M'Intosh & Wheat), and this legal principle continues into the 21st century. It was recently invoked against Indigenous Peoples’ land rights in a 2005 Supreme Court case.

At the September 2016 gathering of the Conscious Elders Network, a group of us proposed a resolution of support for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in their efforts to protect their sovereignty, water, culture, life ways, and sacred sites. This CEN Resolution was approved unanimously by the people attending the Gathering.

As we learned more about the Doctrine of Discovery and its continuing influence on the sovereignty and rights of Indigenous peoples today--and the efforts of various religious groups to repudiate and dismantle this Doctrine--we decided to write a Declaration for the Conscious Elders Network, and ask members of our Network to sign it, in order to make a strong public statement of repudiation, and to strengthen our collective awareness and commitment to rid our society and legal system of this destructive and unjust relic of our colonial past.  

Introductory Documents and Videos on the Doctrine of Discovery

Below are a few resources you may want to read before reading our Declaration on the  Docterine of Discovery

  1. Clear and simple factsheet on the Doctrine of Discovery, 2015

  2. Oren Lyons on Doctrine of Discovery (6 minutes video) 2015: Native American Faithkeeper of the Turtle Clan of the Seneca Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy. This short film is part of 8 short, testimonial films, on the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois.) The Iroquois are embarking on an historic project about the 500-year history of the Iroquois, their relationship with Europe and America and their prophesies that, if heard, can help us navigate the oncoming changes due to climate change. This series of short films is done via their testimony, and creates the space for the Iroquois to tell their story as they strive to uphold the traditions and the legacy of their people while also protecting the central tenets of their people and their relationship and care for the Earth.

  3. Mark Charles -What is the Doctrine of Discovery ( 7 minutes video) 2016: Mark Charles is the son of an American woman of Dutch heritage and a Navajo man. He has lived with his wife and children on the Navajo reservation for 11 years, and now they are in Washington, DC. His objective is to help forge a path of healing and reconciliation for the nation through understanding and teaching on the complexities of American history regarding race, culture, and faith. He is a speaker and a writer on these topics, most notably on the Doctrine of Discovery. He also serves as the Washington correspondent for Native News Online.  Video describes the Papal Bulls of the 14th Century known as the Doctrine of Discovery and their influence on the foundations of the United States of America.

  4. Winona Laduke -The Language of Empire  ( 5 minutes video) 2010: Winona LaDuke (born August 18, 1959) is an American environmentalist, economist, and writer, known for her work on tribal land claims and preservation, as well as sustainable development. In 1996 and 2000, she ran for Vice President as the nominee of the Green Party of the United States, on a ticket headed by Ralph Nader. In the 2016 presidential election, she became the first Native American woman to receive an electoral vote for Vice President of the United States.  She is the executive director of Honor the Earth, which played an active role in the Dakota Access Pipeline protests.  

  5. ENOUGHNESS: Restoring Balance to the Economy in the Most Awesome Way Ever (5 Minutes) 2013: How we see the world determines how we act. Western thought sees us at war with each other over resources. In Indigenous philosophy, we are all related as individuals in balance with nature. Enoughness juxtaposes these two world views and delivers some startling facts.

  6. April 2010. Concise four page report by the UN special reporter: Says the UN Declaration on the Rights of the Indigenous does not go far enough and that the Doctrine of Discovery is the foundational beginning of treating Indigenous as less than human.

  7. Paula Palmer - Healing Our Nation’s Oldest Wounds (essay, 2013): Paula Palmer is clerk of the Indigenous Peoples Concerns Committee of Boulder Monthly Meeting, CO (IMYM), and director of the Meeting’s Roots of Injustice, Seeds of Change: Toward Right Relationship with America’s Native PeoplesProject (see boulderfriendsmeeting.org/ipc-right-relationship). About the workshop, Paula writes: “In the Doctrine of Discovery, we find the roots of injustice. In the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, we find the seeds of change. In this workshop, we ask, ‘How can we – as individuals and as a religious society – nurture these seeds of change to bring forth the fruits of right relationship among all peoples?’”        

Click HERE for more resources.

Please read the Declaration carefully and, if you are aligned with its message, add your signature to it. In addition to posting it here on our website, we will seek other means of publicizing our commitment to the dismantling of the Doctrine of Discovery with its current harms to our Native communities. 

Click HERE to read CEN Declaration on the Doctrine of Discovery