Steven Newcomb

The Holy See’s Destructive Legacy of Deprimantur

Pope Francis—Jorge Mario Bergoglio—is 76 years old. He is the first pope from Latin America, the first Jesuit pope, and the first pope of our time not born in Europe. He is from Argentina, a region of the world colonized by the Spanish crown in the early 16th century on the basis of destructive papal documents issued by the Holy See in 1493. Brazil is a region of South America first colonized by the Portuguese crown on the basis of other such papal documents dating back to 1452.

One day in the Spring of 1992, I was inspired by the idea of calling upon Pope John Paul II to formally revoke the Inter Caetera papal bull of May 4, 1493. Shortly thereafter, at the Peace and the Planet conference in Eugene, Oregon, I met Birgil Kills Straight, a traditional headman of the Oglala Lakota Nation. He immediately understood the magnitude of my idea. He made plans for me to accompany him and Oglala singer Jackie Bird on a speaking tour in northern Italy that Fall. Now, twenty one years later, the campaign that we began on the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s first voyage is a global movement.

In September of 1992, I carried the idea of our campaign to Yelm, Washington, to inform the Traditional Circle of Indian Elders and Youth of my decade of research into the connection between the fifteenth century papal bulls and U.S. federal Indian law and policy.

Based on my self-published pamphlet “Pagans in the Promised Land,” Onondaga Faithkeeper Oren Lyons and I, and a couple of other people, sat up until 3:00 in the morning, drafting a document on “the Christian Nations Theory of federal Indian law.” That document was then sent to Senator Inouye of Hawai’i. As Oren Lyons reminded everyone at the recent North American Indigenous Peoples’ Caucus gathering at Sycuan in the Kumeyaay territory, the Circle of Indian Elders and Youth never did receive a response to that document.

That Fall, in 1992, Birgil and I went on the first of many speaking tours in Italy and elsewhere in the world. In Italy, the Italian people gave us a warm reception wherever we went. We publicized our call upon the pope to formally revoke the Inter Caetera papal bull of 1493 because it called for “barbarous” (i.e., non-Christian) “nations” to be “depressed” (deprimantur), meaning subjugated, overthrown, crushed, and dominated. Our originally free and independent nations and peoples have been suffering from the resulting symptoms of depression ever since.

In 1996, Father Perzywozni invited Birgil to the Italian town of Assissi to attend a gathering of eminent scholars to develop a preamble to the Earth Charter. Birgil arrived there with a brief essay he had written, explaining that the Oglalas, through ceremony, still communicate with animals as St. Francis is said to have done. Ironically, Father Perzywozni argued against Birgil’s document. It was at that gathering in Assissi that Birgil also said it was high time to reject the idea of God’s “command” to “subdue” the Earth, and “exercise dominion” over (or "dominate") all living things.

On the last day of the event in Assissi, we attended a reception where many of the highest level Vatican officials were in attendance. A monk in a grey robe approached Birgil and told him that his friend was the pope’s "white magician" who performs "magic" to protect the pope prior to his travels. We found this information to be quite odd. Why would the Pope need a magician to protect him?

Several years later, in October 2000, I traveled to Rome to be part of a small delegation of Indigenous Peoples’ representatives to dialogue with the Vatican about the papal bull. In a moment of spontaneity I carried a copy of the papal bull Inter Caetera up the steps of St. Peter’s Cathedral, and handed it to the Swiss Guard. Doing so was intended to return to the Holy See one of the subjugating documents that the papacy had issued against our nations and peoples.

Now, in 2013, the planet has entered what the Mayan people say is a new Era. Accordingly, we must renew our call upon the Holy See, now occupied by Pope Francis, to explicitly repudiate the paradigm of domination that the Holy See (commonly known as ‘the Vatican’) set into motion with papal documents issued in 1452, 1455, 1456, 1481, 1493, 1506, and 1514 that called for the Christian invasion of the non-Christian world. The year 2014 will be the 500th year since Pope Leo X, in the papal bull “High Devotion” (Praecelsae Devotionis), “newly grant[ed] everything, all and singular, contained in the aforesaid letters,” and decreed that those documents “ought to be permanently valid.”

Next year, 2014, is also the year when a U.N. General Assembly High Level Plenary Meeting will take place at the United Nations Headquarters in New York, which is the region of the traditional territories of the Algonquin speaking nations, such as the Lenape Nation. Leading up to and on that occasion we will continue to challenge the Holy See’s legacy of Christian Discovery and Domination.

Steven Newcomb (Shawnee, Lenape) is co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, author of Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery (Fulcrum, 2008), and the Indigenous and Kumeyaay Research Coordinator for the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation in the Kumeyaay territory (now commonly called "San Diego").


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The Holy See’s Destructive Legacy of Deprimantur