Setting the Stage (Continued): Early America and the Doctrine of Discovery

In the 1450s, 40 years before Christopher Columbus’ invasion of the Americas, the Pope issued two separate but similar charters called the bull Dum Diversas and the bull Romanus Pontifex. The first gave the King of Portugal the authority to conquer the “Saracens (Muslims), Pagans and any other unbelievers” and commit them to “perpetual servitude.”

The first papal bull  type of written order issued by a Pope of the Roman Catholic Church. It is named after the seal (called a bulla) placed at the end of the document used to authenticate it. meant the Pope was endorsing Portugal’s conquests in North Africa, as well as in other parts of the world. The second gave permission to — and encouraged — the Catholic nations of Europe to colonize and overthrow non-Christian nations leading into the Age of Discovery A period of European history from the 15th to the 18th century defined by a large amount of overseas exploration .

Treaty of Tordesillas

The Treaty of Tordesillas (June 7, 1494) divided the world into two colonizing areas: the Spanish and the Portuguese. 

The Doctrine of Discovery

The Doctrine stated that during the Age of Discovery when European nations had conquered lands in America, the indigenous peoples, who already occupied the land, lost “their rights to complete sovereignty The ability and authority to self-govern without interference,” and were therefore considered occupants on their lands rather than independent nations.

The reason this was able to pass goes all the way back to those papal bulls which set the stage for “unoccupied lands” to be defined as lands unoccupied by Christians.

Interestingly, The Doctrine of Discovery passed the same year James Madison, one of the “Founding Fathers”, wrote: “Religion is not in the purview of human government. Religion is essentially distinct from civil government, and exempt from its cognizance; a connection between them is injurious to both.’” In other words, he was talking about separation of church and state.

The religious tone of the Doctrine was downplayed and the ideology of the Christian Doctrine of Discovery was written into U.S. Law by a unanimous Supreme Court decision. It would be used many times moving forward to justify human, land and voting rights violations against American Indians.

The Doctrine remains the foundation of U.S. Federal Indian Law today.

Genocide, Colonization and the Church

It’s important to understand that throughout history, many wars have been fought by religious societies. Christian nations have not always been the aggressors (and Christians have often fought with one another), but colonization of the Americas was a genocide the deliberate large-scale killing of people from a particular ethnic, national, racial or religious group of the indigenous peoples people native to a land, in the U.S. the indigenous peoples are often referred to as American Indians or Native Americans backed by the Catholic Church.

Abolish Columbus Day

Abolish Columbus Day
Alaskan Indian Blackfoot Tribe

As you read about the treaties and court cases that relate to land and voting rights for American Indian nations, keep this history in mind, because without historical context, it is very difficult for us to understand the struggles of the past, or how challenges today might be connected to our history.