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Sabbath Day – The Doctrine of Discovery

October 16, 2015

During the last three years my family has taken several historical adventures across our country. In 2013 we followed Lewis and Clark across the continent to the source of the Missouri River and over the continental divide. In 2014 we camped our way across Tennessee following the life of Davy Crocket, ending our trip at the Alamo where Davy met his end. And this year we traced the story of Puritans and Patriots from Cape Cod and Plymouth Plantation to Boston, Lexington and Concord. These trips obviously follow grand narratives of elementary school social studies, but each has provided us an occasion to challenge those narratives before our son learns them in school.

My son’s favorite part of the trip out West was the Native American history we encountered – the tribes met by the expedition, the sacred sites of South Dakota, the resistance of Sitting Bull and the end of George Custer at Little Big Horn, the horror of the U.S. army’s massacre of Nez Perce at Big Hole. In Tennessee we spent part of a day walking along the Trail of Tears on which so many Cherokee died as a result of President Andrew Jackson’s policy of Indian Removal. And in Massachusetts we spent considerable time in the Wampanoag village in Plymouth where we learned about King Philip’s War; my son and I stood on the small church green where the head of Metacom (King Philip) was subsequently mounted on a pike and displayed for 20 years, and we wondered what we had inherited from this experience through our own Plymouth ancestors. Those who wish to learn more about the native experience of this nation’s history could do no better than An Indigenous People’s History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz (Cherokee/Irish). I highly recommend it.


This past Monday was Columbus Day, which many observe as Indigenous Peoples’ Day. This appellation is a way of both grappling with the real history of this country (rather than the Columbian mythology) as well as an opportunity for non-native people’s to take responsibility for the continuing oppression of First Nations people and forge partnerships for a better future. One thing we can all do is learn about the Doctrine of Discovery.

The Doctrine of Discovery granted legal cover for centuries of colonialism and racial slavery and paved the way for genocide by codifying and fostering religious, cultural and racial bias. As International Law it was (and is) the equivalent of “Finders, Keepers; Losers, Weepers.” And it undergirds white supremacy to this day.

In 1455, Pope Nicholas V issued the Papal Bull Romans Pontifex granting Portugal to right to claim as its own any land outside Europe not ruled by a Christian monarch and to enslave its people. Portugal used this Bull to colonize parts of Africa, and later the Americas. In 1493, Pope Alexander VI issued Inter Caetera granting the same right to Spain in the “New World.” It would be used by France and England to claim North America. It entered U.S. law via Thomas Jefferson, was utilized by the Supreme Court in 1823, and was still being cited by the U.S. government as recently as 2005.

The following video, prepared by the Unitarian Universalists, is slow but devastating. If this is your first encounter with the Doctrine, the video is well worth your time. Presented as a dialogue between a grandfather and grandson, it is capable of being understood by elementary school children (my son watched it and can repeat the salient points).  [Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz has a chapter on the doctrine in her book; and the UUs have many more resources for study here.]

As part of my commitment to reading multi-national literature as a sabbath practice, I read several selections from the anthology Genocide of the Mind: New Native American Writing by Marijo Moore (Cherokee/Irish) throughout the week. Much of my actual sabbath today was spent reading the 30th Anniversary Edition of God is Red: A Native View of Religion by the late Vine Deloria Jr. (Standing Rock Sioux). This later was both challenging and frustrating. I realize how little resemblance my own Christianity bears to the Christianity examined in the book, and how far biblical studies and liberal theology have come in re-reading, reconceptualizing, reclaiming (and sometimes repudiating) our own past.

Vine Deloria


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