Christian Doctrine and Dehumanization

( – promoted by navajo)

The United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues has released a report which looks at the roots of the Christian domination over indigenous peoples. Forum member Gonnella Frichner, an attorney and member of the Onondaga Nation, indicated:

The first thing indigenous peoples share is the experience of having been invaded by those who treated us without compassion because they considered us less than human.

The central theme of this Christian domination has been the Discovery Doctrine.…


Christian nations have assumed that they had a right to govern the indigenous nations they encountered. This right stemmed from the legal and religious Doctrine of Discovery which declares that Christian nations have a right, if not an obligation, to govern all non-Christian nations. Once an indigenous nation had been read the Christian history of the world, even though it might be read to them in a language they did not understand, then they were obligated to be ruled by the superior Christian nation.

The Catholic Pope in 1452 laid the foundation for the Doctrine of Discovery by issuing the papal bull dum diversas which instructed the Portuguese monarchy

“to invade, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens, pagans, and other enemies of Christ, to put them into perpetual slavery, and to take away all their possessions and property.”

In 1455, the Catholic Pope issued a papal bull, Romanus Pontifex, which sanctified the seizure of non-Christian lands and encouraged the slavery of natives.

A papal bull is a special kind of patent or charter issued by a pope. It is called a “bull” because of the seal (bulla) which was appended to the end of it and served to authenticate the document.

In 1500, the Spanish began using The Requirement, a document which stated that God has declared that the Pope rules all people, regardless of their law, sect, or belief. The Spanish explorers were to read the document to all non-Christian people they encountered and ask them to come forward of their own free will to convert to Catholicism or

“with the help of God we shall use force against you, declaring war upon you from all sides and with all possible means, and we shall bind you to the yoke of the Church and Their Highnesses; we shall enslave your persons, wives, and sons, sell you or dispose of you as the King sees fit; we shall seize your possessions and harm you as much as we can as disobedient and resisting vassals.”

The requirement was drawn up by Palacios Rubios, Spain’s master jurist, and provides the legal basis for the Spanish conquest of the Americas. All Spanish expeditions were required to carry a copy of the document.

The idea of a “just war” is based upon the word of Saint Augustine. Under this concept, a just war was one that was waged to right an injustice or wrong by another nation. One of these wrongs, according to the Christian view, was not being Christian. Thus, if an Indian nation were to fail to let missionaries live and preach among them, then they were committing a “wrong” which would have to be set right through a “just war.”

In 1529, Pope Clement VI wrote to King Charles of Spain:

“We trust that, as long as you are on earth, you will compel and with all zeal cause the barbarian nations to come to the knowledge of God, the maker and founder of all things, not only by edicts of admonitions, but also by force and arms, if needful, in order that their souls may partake of the heavenly kingdom”

The Discovery Doctrine as U.S. Law:

When the United States came into existence in the late 18th century, it simply followed the precedent of the English. Since the English, as a Christian nation adhering to the Doctrine of Discovery, had assumed that it had a right to rule over Indian nations, the United States simply assumed that it had acquired this same right with independence. There was no question in the minds of the founders of the new country that they had a legal and moral right to govern the Indian nations within “their” territory and, in fact, to assume that Indian territory was “their” territory.

In 1823, in Johnson and Graham’s Lessee versus McIntosh the Supreme Court found that the Discovery Doctrine gave sovereignty to England and then to the United States. Indian tribes, under this Doctrine, have a right of occupancy to the land. Christian nations, such as England and the United States, have superior rights over the inferior culture and inferior religion of the Indians. According to the Court:

“The tribes of Indians inhabiting this country were fierce savages, whose occupation was war, and whose subsistence was drawn chiefly from the forest. To leave them in possession of their country, was to leave the country a wilderness.”

Indian nations, according to the Supreme Court, have been compensated for their lands by having Christianity and civilization bestowed upon them.    

Steven Newcomb, Director of the Indigenous Law Institute, writes of the legal doctrine expressed in McIntosh:

“Based on this bizarre theory, our very existence as Indians is now assumed to be subordinate to, ruled by, and possessed as property by, the political and legal successor of the first Christian ‘discoverers,’ namely, the United States.”

The Discovery Doctrine is the legal foundation for American Indian law in the United States.

In 1954, the U.S. government, in the case of Tee Hit Ton, argued before the Supreme Court that under international law Christian nations can acquire lands occupied by heathens and infidels. The Tee Hit Ton, a Tlingit clan, were seeking to recover damages from timber taken by the United States from Indian-occupied lands. In their response the United States attorneys not only cite Johnson v McIntosh, but also the Papal bulls of the 15th century and the Old Testament from the Bible.

The Supreme Court once again affirmed the Discovery Doctrine as the foundation for the supremacy of the United States government over Indian nations. The court denied compensation and asserted:

“No case in this Court has ever held that taking of Indian title or use by Congress required compensation.”

In its finding, the Court viewed the Indians as nomads who have not developed the land:

“The Tee-Hit-Ton were in a hunting and fishing stage of civilization, with shelters fitted to their environment, and claims to rights to use identified territory for these activities as well as the gathering of wild products of the earth.”

More recently (in 2005), United States Supreme Court in City of Sherrill v Oneida Indian Nation of New York decided against the Oneida. In the decision, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg cited the Discovery Doctrine:

More recently (in 2005), United States Supreme Court in City of Sherrill v Oneida Indian Nation of New York decided against the Oneida. In the decision, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg cited the Discovery Doctrine:

“Under the ‘doctrine of discovery,’ fee title to the lands occupied by the Indians when the colonists arrived became vested in the sovereign-first the discovering European nation and later the original States and the United States.”

The United Nations:

The United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues report looked at the Discovery Doctrine primarily in the United States. They feel that this should be the first step in a broader consideration of the Discovery Doctrine which has resulted in the dispossession and impoverishment of indigenous peoples and unlimited resource extraction from their lands. The Forum is looking at the Discovery Doctrine within the scope of the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Kuriakose Bharanikulangara, the observer for the Holy See, responded to the report by saying that the Papal Bulls had paved the way for European expansion. He insisted that the Church had upheld the rights of indigenous peoples to their ancestral lands, regardless of whether the inhabitants were Christian or not.


  1. I was teaching world history today, the topic was European Imperialism in Africa. And I used a big chunk of this diary in explaining the role of missionaries in the destruction of African (and other indigenous) people’s cultures. I hope you do not mind.

  2. Wow, a very interesting read indeed. Certainly provokes thoughts as to my personal roots. Thanks for posting.

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