Goodbye to the Doctrine of Discovery

Lakota Law

As you may have heard, last Thursday marked a momentous decree. After nearly 500 years — and decades of repeated calls from Indigenous activists including my fellow Lakota Law organizer Phyllis Young — the Vatican finally renounced the Doctrine of Discovery.

The legacy of the Doctrine, a papal bull from the 1400s justifying Christian colonialism worldwide, includes westward expansion through the Americas, Manifest Destiny, and the Indian boarding school era. It also continues today through federal Indian law and a Supreme Court dominated by conservative Catholics who will soon rule on whether to dismantle or overturn the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA).

Watch: We interviewed Indigenous scholar Steve Newcomb about the Doctrine of Discovery.

Signed into federal law in 1978, ICWA helped fulfill a great and urgent need to protect Native children from centuries of state-sanctioned genocidal practices. By the 1960s, the boarding school era was nearing an end. Religious institutions masquerading as schools had been assimilating Indigenous children and annihilating their cultural identities since the 1800s. As you likely know, remains of these young victims who underwent horrendous treatment and unfathomable brutality are still being unearthed today. 

Government agencies then quickly discovered a new way to systematically take apart our families and cultures. Child welfare agents, emboldened by racial bias and religious motivations, stole children from their homes at ghastly rates. As the Lakota Times reported, “According to a 1969 report by the Association on American Indian Affairs, between 25% and 35% of all Native children were placed in adoptive homes, foster homes, or institutions; and about 90% of those children were being raised by non-Natives.” 

That’s why ICWA matters. It’s the best solution we currently have to the diabolical and prolonged period of mass kidnapping, which has robbed Native children of their communities, cultural practices, and Indigenous identities. It’s no coincidence that the Brackeens — plaintiffs in the lawsuit to dismantle this critical law at the Supreme Court — are avowed evangelicals. We remain hopeful for a positive outcome in the case, but it’s entirely possible rightwing Catholic justices will side with those seeking to Christianize a Diné (Navajo) child. 

Your advocacy makes a difference! Only by standing together for the rights of our young ones — to preserve our Indigenous families, sovereignty, and cultures — can we shatter the embedded patterns of the past. I’ll have more to say on all of this soon in my blog series, and I hope you’ll keep an eye out. In the meantime, thank you, sincerely, for your friendship. If we can get the Church to disavow the Doctrine of Discovery, anything truly is possible!

Wopila tanka — My deep appreciation for your solidarity with our children and families.
Tokata Iron Eyes
The Lakota People’s Law Project

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s