Resources for Responding to the Doctrine of Discovery

Below are several parts of a work in progress. Designed for the non-scholar who wants to know what the Doctrine of Discovery  (DOD) is, and why it continues to challenge Christians to respond to this unsavory part of the Christian Tradition.

Included are:  1) A Prayer for Healing and Hope (arising from the Episcopal Church’s repudiation of the DOD, and a desire to both prayer and act wisely from that repudiation.

2) The beginning of an effort to set this within the context of the faith life of Episcopal Christians, and all who see this as part of their call to follow Jesus.

3) A comparison of between “native ways” and rather bad Christian theology, that has totally missed the call of Jesus and the prophets for justice and peace among all people.

4.) A brief summary, in legal language, since that is the origin of the term, of the Doctrine of Discovery

5.) Excerpts in English translation of the actual documents — papal bulls, legal texts and royal letters — which collectively have come to be called “The Doctrine of Discovery”

6.) Copies of “The Apology”, offered to the Native people and tribes of the Pacific Northwest in 1987

 Responding to the Doctrine of Discovery —

Responding to Injustice as a Community of Faith

Gather…     Opening Prayer                           A Prayer for Healing and Hope

O Great Spirit, God of all people and every tribe,                                                                           through whom all people are related;                                                                                         Call us to the kinship of all your people.                                                                                     Grant us vision to see                                                                                                                      through the lens of our Baptismal Covenant,                                                                                   the brokenness of the past;   

(Here may be named examples of the brokenness of the past.)

Help us to listen to you and to one-another,                                                                                     in order to heal the wounds of the present;

(Here may be named examples of the wounds of the present.)

And, give us courage, patience and wisdom to work together                                                      for healing, and hope with all of your people,                                                                                  now and in the future.

(Here may be named examples of healing and hope for the future.)

Mend the hoop of our hearts and let us live in justice and peace,                                             through Jesus Christ,                                                                                                                       the One who comes to all people                                                                                                     that we might live in dignity. Amen.

Resources for Responding to Injustice:

(A copy of The Apology and it’s renewal are on pages 6-7)

 What in the BCP speaks back to the DOD? Especially, the Baptismal Covenant, but, also other lines from the Liturgy, the Psalms, and the Prayers, collects, etc.?           

Most of all, what of our faith that has been formed within us responds to this most painful history?

 1.  Responding to the Doctrine of Discovery from within the Christian Tradition:

What needs to happen within individuals?              What needs to happen within the whole community?


Awareness of one’s own ethnic context                         Building into the on-going life of the Comm.

Insight into how one’s faith fits into these issues           education, worship,                                                                                                  informed    actions

 How does the personal growth/ learning connecting with communal action?

 What needs to be in place before individuals can participate is communal actions here?

What needs to be going on within a community so individuals are able to do the

individual spiritual, educational formation needed for communal action?

2.  An example of how Native and Euro-American world views/ practices differ:

 (This is an exaggerated construct for the sake of pointing out far more nuanced differences among Native peoples and certain – but not all – understandings/ world views of Euro-American Christianity. It is based very much on a particularly outmoded , 18th C. Christian reading of Hebrew Scripture, one that would not be recognizable to many Jews.)

Native American                                          Euro-American Christianity________  horizontal                                                                     vertical                                               Individuals valued for collective                 Individuals valued for utility to hierarchy communal responsibility                              individual autonomy                                             Economic organizing unit = group               Economic organizing unit = individual Interdependence in economy & spiritual life                  Personal responsibility & autonomy

In Spiritual Life

Priority of acquisition for as much as possible    Priority of acquisition… as much as possible for the group                                                                   for the self / family                                  No ownership of land, nor fortunes                       Ownership or land and fortunes = Goal #1 Possessions acquired only to be redistributed     Possessions acquired were kept             Food distributed to the community                    Marginalized of those without food, clothes     “Individuality”  / self within a we                     “Individualism”/ egocentric self    (I AM) Humans portrayed as week, dependent on &     Humans “made in image of God” In-cooperation with a Creator & Creation                Domination & control of Creation           “Self”  secondary to needs of community         Self = #1, competitiveness, self-promotion Self-esteem – blending into community           Self-esteem – standing apart from & above                                                                                     others         (“Hurray for me!”)               Identity &  Individuality a la kinship       Individuality/ Identity autonomy                                                                         freedom & constraints  of relationships                     Economic systems – cooperation,             Economic systems – competitiveness,                 sharing and group effort                               competition, consolidation of power            Political System – Direct Democracy         Political System –  Oligarchy of privilege

 From: “Beneath Mother Earth; The Politics of Creation Theologies”, by the Rt. Rev. Steven Charleston, in First Peoples Theology Journal, Creation and Other Stories, Vol. 2, No.1. Sept, 2001, pp 2-11.



The term “Doctrine of Discovery” is standard law school terminology for a wide range of legal (secular governments) and legally binding church documents dating back to the middle ages, (11th C, )  still found in legal usage in the United States as recently as 2005. These documents include papal bulls, royal letters and charters, laws and legal rulings of the U.S. Supreme Court, and public policies, such as Manifest Destiny.

10 Elements of  “Discovery” a la Robert, J. Miller, Law School, at Lewis & Clark

  1. First Discovery. Representatives of the first European King/ Queen to “discover” lands previously unknown to Europeans were seen to have “gained property and sovereign rights” over those lands for that King/Queen.
  1. Actual occupancy and current possession. The claim to legal title of these newly “discovered” lands was established by occupying them through the building of a military fort or settlement.
  1. Preemption / European title. In addition to the claim of legal “discovery”, there was a binding claim, whereby Native people were (and are*) not allowed to sell their land to anyone (governments or individuals) other than the U.S. Government. (*now with supervision)
  1. Indian title. “Discovery” was taken to mean that Indian Nations have “lost the full property rights and ownership of their lands.” If proven that consent was never given for sale of their land, they could retain their rights to occupy and use, in the usual and accustomed manner, their own land. Native people do not own their own lands “free and clear”as does anyone else in this Nation.
  1. Tribal limited sovereign and commercial rights. Although Indian Nations are recognized as  inherently sovereign nations, that sovereignty is limited, for purposes of commerce  and diplomatic international relations, to dealing only with the U.S. Government.
  1. Contiguity. (state of being near to, having proximity to) “Discovery” came to be understood that not only actually occupied land belonged to the “discovers”, but also a “reasonable and significant amount of land contiguous to and surrounding the settlements” were no longer Indian lands. Thus,  a river, and its mouth, and ALL of the land in the drainage field, all the way up to the source of that river was claimed as the territory of the “discovers.” (Columbia River mouth means… most of the State of WA.)
  1. Terra nullius. “Land that is empty” became a means to legally acquire any land not being used, occupied, inhabited, etc. according to Euro-American standards of usage. Given the considerable differences** between Euro-American and Native economic and religious practices a great deal of Native land was declared empty and available for European settlement.
  1. Christianity. Non-Christians were not deemed legally, or ecclesially (by many, but not all, branches of Christianity), to be worthy of respect and dignity as human beings. The rights of “land, sovereignty, and self-determination” pertaining to (Christian males) were not extended to Native people.
  1. Civilization. According to Euro-American understandings, only that which followed Euro-American political, economic, religious, ethical, cultural, social, and aesthetic sensibilities was “civilized.” In spite of glaring injustice and violent practices employed by Euro-Americans towards Native people, marked by “paternalism and guardianship powers over them”, the “settlers” were “civilized” and the Native people were legally labeled as “savages.”
  1. Conquest.  Two meanings: (1) A “military victory”, in which the “invasion and conquest of Indian lands is justified in certain circumstances” (2) also as “term of art”, with meaning particular to the time it was used. Differing from the European legal definition, the U.S. Supreme Court modified the meaning of “conquest” to restrict the property rights of Native people because “the Indian Nations could not be left in complete ownership of the lands in America.”

Based on:  Miller, Robert J., and Elizabeth Nurse. Native America, Discovered and Conquered: Thomas Jefferson, Lewis & Clark, and Manifest Destiny. Westport, Conn: Praetor Publishers, 2006,  pp 3-5.

There is no such thing as a single piece of paper or action called  “The Doctrine of Discovery”, rather it is a collective term – an umbrella word — used to refer to various legally binding documents and policies of Church and State which together are now referred to as “the Doctrine of Discovery”  (DOD/ “Discovery”).

1095    Pope Urban II, Council of Clermont (according to Fulcher of Chartres)  ..a speech calling for the Crusades… “Although, O sons of God, you have promised more firmly than ever to keep the peace  among yourselves and to preserve the rights of the church, there remains still an important work for  you to do. Freshly quickened by the divine correction, you must apply the strength of your righteousness to another matter which concerns you as well as God. For your brethren who live in the east are in urgent               need of your help, and you must hasten to give them the aid which has often been promised them.  For, as the most of you have heard, the Turks and Arabs have attacked them and have conquered the territory of Romania [the Greek empire] as far west as the shore of the Mediterranean and the Hellespont, which is called the Arm of St. George. They have occupied more and more of the lands of  those Christians, and have overcome them in seven battles. They have killed and captured many, and have destroyed the churches and devastated the empire. If you permit them to continue thus for awhile with impurity, the faithful of God will be much more widely attacked by them. On this account I, or         rather the Lord, beseech you as Christ’s heralds to publish this everywhere and to    persuade all people of   whatever rank, foot-soldiers and knights, poor and rich, to carry aid promptly to those Christians and to  destroy that vile race from the lands of our friends. I say this to those who are present, it meant also for   those who are absent. Moreover, Christ commands it”….

1452    Papal Bull Dum Diversas (Nicholas V) 18 June “ “We grant you [Kings of Spain and Portugal] by  these present documents, with our Apostolic Authority, full and free permission to invade, search out,  capture, and subjugate the Saracens and pagans and any other unbelievers and enemies of Christ wherever they may be, as well as their kingdoms, duchies, counties, principalities, and other property […]  and to reduce their persons into perpetual slavery.

1454    Papal Bull Romanus Pontifex (Nicholas V) January 8...”The Roman pontiff, successor of the key-bearer of the heavenly kingdom and vicar of Jesus Christ, contemplating with a father’s mind all the several climes of the world and the characteristics of all the nations dwelling in them and seeking and  desiring the salvation of all, wholesomely ordains and disposes upon careful deliberation those things  which he sees will be agreeable to the Divine Majesty and by which he may bring the sheep entrusted to   him by God into the single divine fold, and may acquire for them the reward of eternal felicity, and obtain  pardon for their souls. This we believe will more certainly come to pass, through the aid of the Lord, if we  bestow suitable favors and special graces on those Catholic kings and princes, who, like athletes and intrepid champions of the Christian faith, as we know by the evidence of facts, not only restrain the savage excesses of the Saracens and of other infidels, enemies of the Christian name, but also for the  defense and increase of the faith vanquish them and their kingdoms and habitations, though situated in               the remotest parts unknown to us, and subject them to their own temporal dominion, sparing no labor and  expense, …”

1493    Papal Bull Inter Caetera (Alexander VI) May 4,  ..Alexander, bishop, servant of the servants of  God, to the illustrious sovereigns, our very dear son in Christ, Ferdinand, king, and our very dear daughter  in Christ, Isabella, queen of Castile, Leon, Aragon, Sicily, and Granada, health and apostolic benediction. Among other works well pleasing to the Divine Majesty and cherished of our heart, this assuredly ranks         highest, that in our times especially the Catholic faith and the Christian religion be exalted and be everywhere increased and spread, that the health of souls be cared for and that barbarous nations be overthrown and brought to the faith itself….Moreover, as your aforesaid envoys are of opinion, these very peoples living in the said islands and countries believe in one God, the Creator in heaven, and seem  sufficiently disposed to embrace the Catholic faith and be trained in good morals. And it is hoped that, were they instructed, the name of the Savior, our Lord Jesus Christ, would easily be introduced into the  said countries and islands….Furthermore, under penalty of excommunication late sententie to be incurred ipso facto, should anyone thus contravene, we strictly forbid all persons of whatsoever rank, even imperial  and royal, or of whatsoever estate, degree, order, or condition, to dare, without your special permit or  that of your aforesaid heirs and successors, to go for the purpose of trade or any other reason to the  islands or mainlands, found and to be found, discovered and to be discovered, towards the west and              south, by drawing and establishing a line from the Arctic pole to the Antarctic pole, no matter whether the mainlands and islands, found and to be found, lie in the direction of India or toward any other quarter   whatsoever, the said line to be distant one hundred leagues towards the west and south, as is aforesaid, from any of the islands commonly known as the Azores and Cape Verde; apostolic constitutions and    ordinances and other decrees whatsoever to the contrary notwithstanding. We trust in Him from whom     empires and governments and all good things proceed, that, should you, with the Lord’s guidance, pursue this holy and praiseworthy undertaking…

1496    Patent Granted by King Henry VII (of England) to John Cabot and his Sons, March 5,

1606    Jamestown Charter …” We, greatly commending, and graciously accepting of, their Desires for the Furtherance of so noble a  Work, which may, by the Providence of Almighty God, hereafter tend to the Glory of his Divine Majesty, in  propagating of Christian Religion to such People, as yet live in Darkness and  miserable Ignorance of the true  Knowledge and Worship of God, and may in time bring the Infidels and              Savages, living in those parts, to  human Civility, and to a settled and quiet Government:...

1765    New Jersey history – “defined the English claims as being based on Cabot’s voyage,  discovery & possession

1803-06 Lewis & Clark Expedition

1823    Johnson  v. M’Intosh – (U.S. Supreme Court Case)  March 10 –

Continues to this day to be significant in that “almost all land titles in the U.S….because       Indian title is the original link to most land.”(Miller 50)

1823    The Monroe Doctrine December 2 – proclaimed and end to “Discovery”, i.e. for  European nations, but not the U.S.

…from the Supreme Court Decision:

The United States, then, have unequivocally acceded to that great and broad rule [Discovery] by which       its civilized inhabitants now hold this county. They hold, and assert in themselves, the title by which it was acquired. They maintain, as others have maintained, that discovery gave an exclusive right to extinguish Indian title of occupancy, either by purchase or by conquest; and gave also a right to such a degree of  sovereignty, as the circumstances of the people would allow them to exercise.

1845    Manifest Destiny – “used to define American expansion to the Pacific Ocean” (Miller, 114),   which  grew out of  the Doctrine of Discovery, and linked to Thomas  Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase, policy of the removal of all eastern tribes to the west of the Mississippi,  and the Lewis & Clark Expedition



November 12 1987  c/o Jewell Praying Wolf James, Lummi

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

This is a formal apology on behalf of our churches for their long-standing participation in the destruction of traditional Native American spiritual practices. We call upon our people for recognition of and respect for your traditional ways of life and for protection of your sacred places and ceremonial objects. We have frequently been unconscious and insensitive and not come to your aid when you have been victimized by unjust federal policies and practices. In many other circumstances we reflected the rampant racism and prejudice of the dominant culture with which we too willingly identified. During this two hundredth anniversary year of the United States Constitution we, as leaders of our churches in the Pacific Northwest, extend our apology. We ask for your forgiveness and blessing.

As the Creator continues to renew the earth, the plants, the animals, and all living things, we call upon the people of our denominations and fellowships to a commitment of mutual support in your efforts to reclaim and protect the legacy of your own traditional spiritual teachings. To that end we pledge our support and assistance in upholding the American Religious Freedom Act (P. L. 95-134, 1978) and within  that legal precedent affirm the following:

(1) The rights of the Native Peoples to practice and participate in traditional ceremonies and rituals with the same protection offered all religions under the Constitution.

(2) Access to and protection of sacred Sites and public lands for ceremonial purposes.

(3) The use of religious symbols (feathers, tobacco, sweet grass, bone, etc.) for use in traditional ceremonies and rituals. The spiritual power of the land and the ancient wisdom of your indigenous religions can be, we believe, great gifts to the Christian churches. We offer our commitment to support you in the righting of previous wrongs: to protect your people’s efforts to enhance Native spiritual teachings; to encourage the members of our churches to stand in solidarity with you on these important religious issues; to provide advocacy and mediation, when appropriate, for ongoing negotiations with State agencies and Federal officials regarding these matters.

May the promises of this day go on public record with all the congregations of our communions and be communicated to the Native American Peoples of the Pacific Northwest. May the God of Abraham and Sarah, and the Spirit who lives in both the cedar and Salmon People, be honored and celebrated.


The Rev. Thomas L. Blevins, Bishop                        The Most Rev. Raymond G. Hunthausen Pacific Northwest Synod –                                                  Archbishop of Seattle                Lutheran Church in America                                      Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Seattle

The Rev. Dr. Robert Bradford                                              The Rev. Elizabeth Knott Executive Minister Synod Executive                                Northwest Synod Alaska-Northwest American Baptist Churches                                               of the Presbyterian Church

The Rev. Robert Brock                                                         The Rev. Lowell Knutson, Bishop N.W. Regional Christian Church North Pacific District     American Lutheran Church

The Right Rev. Robert H. Cochrane            The Most Rev. Thomas Murphy   (BCA)             Episcopal Diocese of Olympia                       Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Seattle

The Rev. W. James Halfaker                               The Rev. Melvin G. Talbert, Bishop                 Conference Minister United Church of Christ                United Methodist Church Washington North Idaho Conference                              Pacific Northwest Conference


A Public Declaration to the Tribal Councils and Traditional Spiritual Leaders of the

Indian and Eskimo Peoples of the Northwest  November 1997


In 1987, the Bishops and Denominational Executives from churches in the US Pacific Northwest, offered

to you, on behalf of the Christian churches they represent, an apology for long-standing participation in the destruction of traditional Native American spiritual practices. Since that time, our churches have

been challenged to act in accordance with this act of contrition. We are still growing in our

understanding of our own words.

We have prayed together, we have sat in a circle together; we have stood in solidarity and faced

struggles together. We have tried to open our eyes to the ways of compassion and justice. We have

opened our ears to listen and to learn from our native teachings. We have spoken from the strength in

our common faith about the sacredness of all creation and Gods claim on all life. We embrace the

spiritual power of the land and respect the ancient wisdom of your indigenous religions. They are great

gifts to the churches. We confess our lack of consciousness and our insensitivity to the integrity of

Native ways of life. We know that healing takes many forms. Healing will take commitments of time,

energy and financial resources. Healing will come when we accept the grace, which comes as a gift of the Creator. Our spiritual tradition affirms a God who regenerates all that has life. We give thanks to a God who restores life from death; recovers identity when it is threatened; reclaims and protects the meaning of spirituality when it is dishonored. Because of our faith in a God of resurrection and rebirth and hope, God revealed in Jesus Christ, we make the following re-affirmations from the 1987 Apology;

To honor and defend the rights of Native Peoples to practice and participate in traditional ceremonies

and rituals with the same protection offered all religions under the Constitutions and public policies of

the lands in which we live.

To secure access to protection of sacred sites and public lands for ceremonial purposes.

To respect the use of religious symbols for use in traditional ceremonies and rituals.

To participate in the struggles to end political and economic injustice against tribal communities.

We continue to call upon people of faith to recognize and respect the traditional ways of life of Native

and indigenous peoples. We renew our pledge to be with you in circle. A circle where peoples come to know one another. A circle where peoples come to deepen their bonds and their connection with one another. A circle where partnership and companionship embrace the notion of reciprocity.

As we continue to experience the power of the circle, we commit ourselves to be responsive to the

challenges that face our communities, to protect our children’s future and to honor the relationships of

Christian and Native spiritual leaders in order that we may share knowledge and experience of the


We offer these words humbly and respectfully to the Native American Peoples of the Pacific

Northwest. We pray today for the blessing of the Creator on our peoples. May the God of Jesus Christ,

and the spirit who lives in both cedar and Salmon People, be forever honored and celebrated.

The Rev. Dr. Paul D. Aita, Executive Minister , American Baptist Churches of the Northwest

The Rev. Randy Hyvonen, Conference Minister , United Church of Christ, Washington North Idaho Conference

The Rev. Lynne Simcox Fitch, Conference, , Minister, United Church of Christ Washington, North Idaho Conference

The Rev. Donald H. Maier, Bishop , Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Northwest Washington Synod

The Rev. Elias Gabriel Galvan, Bishop United Methodist Church, Pacific NW Annual Conference

The Rev. Gary F. Skinner, Synod Executive , Presbyterian Church (USA) Synod of Alaska/Northwest

The Rt. Rev. Sanford Z.K. Hampton , Bishop Assistant , Episcopal Diocese of Olympia

The Most Rev. William S. Skylstad, Bishop , Roman Catholic Diocese of Spokane

The Rt. Rev. Vincent W. Warner , Bishop, Episcopal Diocese of Olympia                                                                                 The Rev. David C. Wold, Bishop, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Southwestern Washington Synod


About kathrynrickert

Possibly from watching the movie Bambie at the age of 6, I have had a life-long awareness that saying ONLY nice things, does not make the world just or kind. Thus, my 2009 doctoral dissertation..."Talking Back to God" , is one of the main aspects of the work I do. Always interdisciplinary, seeking connections across borders that are usually marked with DO NOT ENTER, I seek to pay attention, pray, think, create,and imagine using biblical laments, Christian worship texts, and the ordinary stuff of everyday life.
This entry was posted in God at Gatherings, food, drink and holy stuff, God at Work, God in Creation, God in Relationships, God in Struggle and Distress, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

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