Whether they are looking ahead a couple of weeks to the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues or recalling the past of 500 years ago, a panel of Native scholars on April 20 insisted the Doctrine of Christian Discovery’s destructive fallout continues today in law and in policy and they plan to continue saying so.
Panel members were Steve Newcomb, Lenape/Shawnee, author, co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute and a columnist for Indian Country Today Media Network; Debra Harry, Northern Paiute, author and executive director, Indigenous Peoples Council on Biocolonialism, and Sharon Venne, Cree Nation, Alberta, Canada, lawyer, scholar, and member of the U.N. Working Group of Indigenous Peoples. Glenn Morris, Shawnee, of the University of Colorado-Denver (UC-D) political science faculty, was the moderator.
The Colorado Council of Churches is endorsing the World Council of Church’s statement on the Doctrine “and its enduring impact on Indigenous Peoples,” Morris announced (The lengthy statement by the WCC executive committee from February 14-17 is available here). He, the panelists, UC-D students and others will attend the UNPFII May 7-18, in New York City when the Doctrine will be a central issue.
The Doctrine is a “legal fiction” allowing Europeans to invade the territories of Indigenous nations to take their lands and resources and to dominate or kill the Native people, he said. U.S. courts that gave Indian land to the U.S. or restricted its sale and declared tribes to be “domestic dependent nations” have affirmed the Doctrine.
Newcomb, author of Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery, said “dehumanization and domination” affect people around the world and it is important to understand the language more deeply to understand its history.
When Columbus landed on present-day San Salvador, he erected a cross to denote religion but also a gallows, to represent “justice,” Newcomb said. The Anglo-Saxon doctrine of dominating “inferior” peoples was to ensure domination by the designated people over those destined to be dominated, he said.
Another panelist described a contemporary form of domination. Harry is concerned that the U.N. World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) and other groups are “really for the benefit of others who want access to Indigenous Peoples’ knowledge and resources for their own commercial benefit,” and the resources “could be subsumed into the intellectual property framework.” The possible end result is that cultural heritage “will become alienable resources that can be owned, bought and sold as commodities.”
The rise of a “technician class is facilitating states’ agendas,” she said, explaining that technicians are indigenous people who have become part of the process of “commercialization and commodifying our knowledge and heritage.” A Nagoya 2010 conference would place biodiversity in the marketplace and “key issues were decided behind closed doors.”
Venne said, “Governments are using technicians—and a lot of money—to sit there with their suits and ties and agree with what they’re saying. How do they claim they have title to our lands and resources?”
Under the Doctrine, organizations try to use technicians to give them authority, but who gave them the authority—who are the true owners of these resources?” Venne said.
She responded to her own question with a short tale about a Northern chief visited by a government functionary who said the chief’s territory wasn’t his, but the crown’s. The chief told the man, “If it’s your land, take it with you when you go.” The man left, the chief looked out the window, and, of course, the land was still there. Smugly, he told the people around him, “It’s ours.”
The upcoming UNPFII will, panelists and others hope, help to define “ownership” as clearly as it is depicted in this account.