Looking Back to Look Forward

Last week, the Unitarian Universalist Association became only the second national religious body to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery, the 15th century papal doctrine that declared that when Christian Europeans landed in a place inhabited by non-Christian people, the Europeans could claim to have “discovered” the land, and had the right to possess it and the people on it.

The Doctrine of Discovery became the theological justification for European colonialism, slavery, genocide and many atrocities of history. In 1823, it also, thanks to Chief Justice John Marshall and the US Supreme Court, became the legal justification for the United States’ treatment of the indigenous peoples of our continent. According to this doctrine, the native peoples who were here before the arrival of Europeans in North America have no right to own their traditional lands, to practice their traditional religion on those lands, or to self-determination.

If this were just a horrible chapter of history, however, there would be little need to engage entire denominations in the process of repudiating it. We could read about it in a book and move on. The Doctrine of Discovery, however, is living amongst us today.

The Supreme Court still refers to it, believe it or not, most recently in City of Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation (2005), in which the court ruled that the Oneida Nation was not entitled to the sovereignty granted it in treaties with New York State even if they purchased the land seized from them in violation of that treaty on the open real estate market. Writing for the 8-member majority, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg cited the Doctrine of Discovery as legal basis for nullifying the Oneida’s treaty rights.

We tell the truth about our history so that we can do better in the future, and our nation can and must do better.

What can we do?

First, the United States can fully implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Adopted in 2007, this declaration asks UN member nations to negotiate, in full faith and with honor and mutuality, right relationship with the indigenous peoples among them. It says something that the United States was one of only 4 nations in the world to vote no. Since then, President Obama has declared his intention to follow the declaration, but his promise has not been acted upon. We can ask him to.

Second, the US can act to restore the rights of indigenous peoples to their lands and their religions. Native Hawai’ian people are prevented from practicing their ancient faith because their sacred sites are “owned” by the Federal government. That can and should be changed.

And finally, we as people can seek right relationship with the indigenous people of this land and with our common mother, the Earth. Do you know whose ancient territory you sit upon as you read this article? If not, find out. Find out where those people are today. Seek healing with honor and openness.

We learn about the past so that we can do better in the future, and the United States was founded on the principle that when we learn a better way we can make it happen. Let’s work together to fulfill the promise of our nation instead of repeating its ugly past.