Dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery

Pope Francis recently apologized for the Catholic church’s role in running boarding schools where Indigenous children were sexually and physically abused and where many died.

In a ceremony held in Maskwacis, Alberta, Canada on July 25, 2022, the Pope said he was “deeply sorry” for the ways in which “many Christians supported the colonizing mentality of the powers that oppressed the Indigenous peoples. I ask forgiveness, in particular, for the ways in which many members of the church and of religious communities cooperated, not least through their indifference, in projects of cultural destruction and forced assimilation promoted by the governments of that time, which culminated in the system of residential schools.”

While the Pope’s words were heartfelt, what was missing was a recognition of the profound and lasting damage caused by the Doctrine of Discovery, a fifteenth century set of laws that gave Christian governments the moral and legal right to seize lands they “discovered” despite those lands already being populated by Indigenous peoples.

TWU recently received a visit from Sarah Augustine, a Tewa woman who is working from inside the Mennonite church to dismantle the Doctrine of Discovery. Sarah observed that the Doctrine is foundational to the belief system of colonization, and is a current legal doctrine in the United States. It is a paradigm of legal precedent that provides Supreme Court Justices a position from which to determine points of land-tenure law, specifically related to Indigenous Land tenure. See this article to learn how Ruth Bader Ginsburg used the Doctrine in a 2005 SCOTUS decision to perpetuate colonization and deny the Oneida Nation their ancestral lands.

Legitimized by the church and justified by a misreading of Scripture, the Doctrine of Discovery says a land can be considered “empty” and therefore free for the taking if inhabited by “heathens, pagans, and infidels.” White settlers saw land for the taking. They failed to consider the perspective of the people already here.

In her book, The Land is Not Empty, Sarah investigates ways that the Doctrine of Discovery continues to devastate Indigenous cultures, and even the planet itself, as it justifies exploitation of both natural resources and people.

Tewa Women United views the Pope’s words and intentions for healing and reconciliation as a first step. But so much more is necessary. For his words to have significance, this process need to move toward rescinding of the Doctrine of Discovery. We join with our relatives across Turtle Island and Mother Earth and call on Pope Francis to invoke the power and privilege he holds to dismantle the Doctrine of Discovery so true healing can begin. This would be in line with the principles of Healing Justice. 


Sarah Augustine at a recent presentation on Dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery