NEW YORK – There is no ambiguity in the language of the 15th-century papal bulls issued by the popes of the Roman Catholic Church as they encouraged the kings of Portugal and Spain to conquer “undiscovered” lands, enslave their non-Christian populations and expropriate their possession and resources.
Now, more than 500 years later, the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues has called on Pope Benedict XVI to revoke and renounce those documents. The bulls, according to the forum, formed the “doctrine of discovery” – a philosophy that sanctified the massacre of millions of indigenous people and continues to influence U.S. Supreme Court decisions today.
The Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues held its fifth conference at the United Nations in New York from May 15 – 26. More than 1,200 delegates from all over the world attended.
The forum was established by the U.N. Economic and Social Council in 2000 with a mandate “to discuss indigenous issues within the mandate of the council relating to economic and social development, culture, the environment, education, health and human rights.”
A May 18 event called “Papal Bulls, Manifest Destiny and American Empire” featured Oren Lyons, Faithkeeper of the Onondaga Nation (Haudenosaunee); Tonya Gonnella Frichner, Onondaga Nation; Esmeralda Brown, of Panama, chair of the Non-Governmental Organizations for Sustainable Development’s southern caucus; and Yolanda Teran, Kichwa from Quito, Ecuador, and a member of Ecuador’s National Council of Indigenous Women.
The Rev. Robert Meyer, a representative from the office of the Permanent Observer of the Holy See at the United Nations, was invited to join the panel, but declined. “I’m not really an expert historian, so I’ll have to be an expert listener,” Meyer said.
The papal bulls include a Jan. 8, 1455, edict by Pope Nicholas V that grants the “right of conquest” to Alfonso, king of Portugal, and authorizes him “to invade, search out, capture, vanquish and subdue all Saracens and pagans whatsoever and other enemies of Christ wheresoever placed, and the kingdoms, dukedoms, principalities, dominions, possessions and all movable and immovable goods whatever held and possessed by them and to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery.”
The “movable and immovable goods” were to be used for the benefit and profit of Alfonso and his heirs forever.
The term “Saracens” was used by medieval Europeans to mean Arabs and Muslims in general.
Portugal and Spain were rivals in the conquest game, and by 1493, a new pope – Alexander V – issued another papal bull urging his King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain to “seek out and discover certain islands and mainlands remote and unknown and not hitherto discovered by others” so that the “barbarous nations be overthrown and brought to the [Roman Catholic] faith itself.”
Lyons, the first speaker on the panel, wove stories from the past to the present, juxtaposing the spirituality of indigenous people with organized religion.
The two have “different ideas,” Lyons said, “and even in today’s dialogue we still don’t quite connect because we’re on a different spiritual level. They don’t quite understand relationship. We never gave up our relations with the earth.”
Lyons quoted a Buddhist spiritual leader who had supported the American Indians’ 1978 Long Walk from California to the White House, seeking justice for the depredations of history.
“When he was asked why he had joined the Long Walk, he said, ‘I have studied the issue of peace around the world, and I’ve studied the peoples around the world and it is my conclusion that the most consistently persecuted people in the history of modern times is American Indians, and I am very amazed and impressed that in spite of all this persistent persecution, you have maintained your beliefs and your ways. Even today I see them as very crystallized and very strong, and I consider from all of this that the spiritual center of the world lies her in your hands,’” Lyons said.
Lyons provided a lyrical ancestral memory of life on Turtle Island B.C. – “Before Columbus” – as a pristine land of plenty where “peace was prevalent” because everyone understood the basic unwritten law that is the foundation of peace: respect for each other and the land, Lyons said.
“Then our brother came from across the water, and my grandmother said it was like a black cloud rolling towards us, a rolling black cloud coming at us, and it covered us. That’s how she described it,” Lyons said.
Last September, Lyons co-signed a letter urging Pope Benedict XVI to rescind and revoke the papal bulls.
“These bulls provide the foundation for the theft of indigenous lands throughout the world that continues up to this day. These bulls subjugated innocent and unsuspecting Native peoples and subjected them to more than 500 years of slavery, genocide and a less than human identity. We continue to suffer from what could be called an international conspiracy of nations, now … become nation-states, to continue to perpetuate this racist doctrine promulgated by the Roman Catholic Church. This doctrine is a crime against humanity,” Lyons wrote.
Lyons told Indian Country Today he has not received a response to, or an acknowledgement of receipt of, his letter from the pope.
Meyer, the Vatican representative who attended the panel discussion, left the event during an emotional reading of Lyons’ letter by Brown. Reached by phone later, Meyer declined to comment and had not responded to questions by press time.
Frichner said the doctrine of discovery was an agreement among European nations that whichever nation arrived first had the right to explore, colonize and expropriate the land’s resources. The non-Christian indigenous peoples did not have the right to own the land, only to occupy it.
“I think of it as a sort of gentlemen’s agreement … kind of like the Mafia – this is my neighborhood and you stay out,” Frichner said.
She explained how the doctrine of discovery continues to play out in Indian country. Last year, the Supreme Court ruled that the Oneida Indian Nation of New York (owner of Four Directions Media, which publishes Indian Country Today) was required to pay property taxes on aboriginal lands it had bought back from the city of Sherrill, N.Y.
“The first footnote refers to the doctrine of discovery … so if you think we’re talking about some archaic notions that have no place in today’s contemporary world, you’re making a mistake,” Frichner said.
She urged people who are working to rescind the papal bulls to become familiar with the doctrine of discovery, its history and impact.