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Nagle writes: "The Supreme Court turned a backwards, racist papal bull into American law. It's preventing this country from confronting a genocide."

The Christopher Columbus Statue at Columbus Circle in Manhattan, NYC. (photo: Bebeto Matthews/AP)
The Christopher Columbus Statue at Columbus Circle in Manhattan, NYC. (photo: Bebeto Matthews/AP)

The 15th-Century Doctrine That Let Columbus 'Discover America' Is Now the Basis of Indian Policy in the US

By Rebecca Nagle, ThinkProgress

09 October 17

The Supreme Court turned a backwards, racist papal bull into American law. It’s preventing this country from confronting a genocide.

n October 12, 1993, I sat in my first-grade classroom with a mountain of Popsicle sticks on my desk. I had just been taught that Columbus was a super great guy, and we would be building models of the Pinta and Santa Maria out of the sticks. Because he was very brave and knew he was right about the earth being flat, the lesson went, he sailed all the way across the Atlantic Ocean and “discovered” America. I raised my hand. “If Columbus had never come here, my family would still have our land.”

The fight to change the elementary school version of Columbus’ story isn’t just a symbolic fight. For us as Native Americans, it is the fight to reject the incredibly racist legal framework under which we still live. The same 15th-century doctrine that allowed Columbus to “discover Hispanola” (and gave his army license to rape, murder, and enslave Taino people) is the basis of U.S. federal Indian policy today. The Doctrine of Discovery has been cited in Supreme Court Cases as recently as 2005 and by 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in 2014.

While the international Indigenous community has been calling for the denouncement of the Doctrine of Discovery for decades, most Americans don’t even know what it is. It first appeared in 1455 as a papal bull giving Portugal permission to invade and colonize West Africa. After Columbus’s infamous voyage to the Caribbean, a similar papal bull was extended to Spain in 1493.

The Doctrine of Christian Discovery asserted simply that Christian Nations became the rightful owner of any land they found occupied by non-Christian people. Europeans used this international law, grounded in the racist presumption of European superiority, to colonize most of the earth. What followed was the kidnapping and enslavement an estimated 12.5 million African people and the systematic genocide of an estimated 90 million indigenous people (90 percent of the pre-genocide population of the Americas). In 1982, when Spain proposed to the UN General Assembly that the 500-year anniversary of Columbus’s voyage should be marked by celebration, the entire African delegation walked out.

The Doctrine of Discovery was codified into U.S. law by the Supreme Court the same decade my tribe was forcibly removed from our homelands to “Indian Territory” on the “Trail Where They Cried”, now known as the Trail of Tears. In the 1832 Johnson v. M’Intosh decision, Supreme Court Chief Justice Marshall wrote that “discovery gave title to the government” and that “the Indigenous inhabitants were then left with only a ‘right of occupancy,’ which United States courts have ruled, could be terminated at will by the federal government.” In other words, Native people are tenants.

As recently as 2005, Justice Ginsberg — a liberal icon of the left — cited the Doctrine of Discovery in City of Sherrill v. Oneida Nation of Indians, stating that the Oneida Indian Nation could not exert sovereignty over land within their 1794 treaty territory the tribe had bought back. In the first footnote of her decision Ginsberg cites the Doctrine of Discovery stating “…the lands occupied by 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 attack on tribal sovereignty and the diminishment of the rights of Native Nations has real and current consequences for the lives of Native people. Today, four out of five Native women in the U.S. will be raped, stalked, or abused in their lifetime, and one in three of us are raped, stalked, and abused every year. The majority of perpetrators (9 out of 10) are non-Native, but because of a Supreme Court decision that cited the doctrine of discovery (Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe, 1978), Native Nations are prohibited from prosecuting non-Natives who commit crimes on our lands.

My tribe, Cherokee Nation, has its own constitution, citizens, land, and government. Our right to self-govern pre-dates the existence of the United States. Our right to our land pre-dates the creation of the Supreme Court, the Constitution, and even Columbus. In Christian mythology, humans were kicked out of the Garden of Eden. Our creation story tells us how the mountains where we lived were first formed. We were living in our Eden at the time when Europeans came to claim it.

When discussing the genocide of Native Americans, the most important thing to remember is that it didn’t work: We are still here. As the late Wilma Mankiller, principal chief of Cherokee Nation from 1985 to 1995 stated, “One of the most powerful countries in the world as a policy first tried to wipe us off the face of the earth. And then, failing that, instituted a number of policies to make sure that we didn’t exist… as a culturally distinct group of people, and yet here we are. Not only do we exist, but we’re thriving and we’re growing, and we’re learning now to trust our own thinking again and dig our way out.”

I am currently working with leaders from the Baltimore American Indian Center and Native American Lifelines to change the name Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day in Baltimore. When we sit down with our City Council representatives, we hand them a fact sheet detailing Columbus’ known abuses. In his own journals, Columbus graphically describes raping indigenous women and sex-trafficking children (“those from nine to ten are now in demand.“) His men would cut of the hands of Taino people who did not bring them the required amount of gold, tying their severed hands around their necks. Within 50 years of Columbus landing on the island, 95 percent of the Taino population had died. A genocide.

Last week, an Italian-American man told me flatly I was wrong about Columbus, because the man holds a Ph.D in history. After the Nazi holocaust, Germany passed laws that prohibited denying that genocide happened. In contrast, in the United States, people are still afraid to confront the truth about this country’s own genocide of Native Americans. The laws that limit our rights as Native people and Native Nations are only possible in a country whose public denies what has happened to us. your social media marketing partner


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+17 # jwb110 2017-10-09 23:08
Any land that White Europeans set their feet on, outside of Europe, they managed to screw up. And there has been no change in that.
+9 # Kootenay Coyote 2017-10-10 10:07
The English didn't do so well by Ireland, either....
+15 # bubbiesue 2017-10-09 23:46
I guess we need to re-think this, and never mind the law based in a religious document that probably less than ½ of the U.S. subscribes to--i.e., the Pope. I respect him, but religions have done weird things over the years and those Papal Bulls are included. Perhaps it would help if Pope Francis nullified them.

Further, there's nothing to say we can't change our minds. I suspect we'll have some carefully drawn prosecutions of whites who abuse American Indians (in whatever way and by whatever title) before long, and I hope the Indians win. It would be just.
+13 # PABLO DIABLO 2017-10-09 23:53
I wish every citizen of the United States could read this. Time to tear down the statue of Columbus.
+3 # Salburger 2017-10-10 04:09
Well it was an unintentional genocide for the most part--they didn't mean to wipe out the population that they intended to enslave and exploit. Then they had to go through the trouble and expense of importing millions of African slaves to replace the native population that was wiped out. Of course later on there were intentional genocide campaigns against American natives.
+5 # dusty 2017-10-10 10:05
Genocide is not and can not be unintentional -- by the acts undertaken by those doing genocide and people are killed. That is the intention of murder and genocide: to kill people. When the Nazis put gay, Jews, communists and others in the gas chambers it wasn't to make them happy and healthy.
+6 # Chiniquy13 2017-10-10 05:36

Click below to 'read' the article.
-1 # kyzipster 2017-10-10 10:51
There was an article circulating widely last year on the racist origins of the term 'Caucasian.' A clear effort to peg anyone who uses the term a 'racist.' Where does that leave us?

If someone believes their race is superior, I don't think it matters which term is used, any term is going to register as superior. I like Caucasian because it's not a measure of melanin, or it's not supposed to be. It's used to distinguish by common facial structure. Along with most people of European descent, most people of Middle Eastern descent are 'Caucasian.' Considering the xenophobia going on in the US, I think that should be emphasized more.

Because of laws passed in the civil rights era in the US, we constantly divide people by both race and ethnicity, distinguishing different Caucasians. Often separating the 'whites' from darker skinned Caucasians.

I've seen PC rants about this practice, that's largely on government forms or employment and rental applications. They seem oblivious to the reasons behind it, an effort to end institutional racism. To provide equal opportunity. Institutions need to sometimes prove they provide equal opportunity because of the law. People see racism everywhere it seems, perhaps it is everywhere.

A lot of white people still feel superior but at the same time, 'old white man' is seen as the root of all evil in the world by many people. It's a sort of slur today. Maybe it's human nature to think of people in dehumanizing, general terms.
+2 # futhark 2017-10-11 09:49
Whenever I am confronted with one of those ridiculous forms asking me my "race", if there is room for a real answer rather than just a set of check boxes I write in "western European". It seems that all the other categories of people are identified by continent of ancestral origin {"Asian" "African", etc.), so I have never understood why Europeans should be excluded from having the option of such a more accurate designation and have to be all tossed together in the category of "white".
+3 # Citizen Mike 2017-10-10 08:58
I would not insult Columbus by applying anachronistic standards to his behavior and denying that his voyage required courage and determination. However, genocide and atrocities did follow and that should be remembered with importance when history is taught. And I would not take down any Columbus statue but I would put a statue, monument or memorial for the Natives next to each one. As I have often remarked in a variety of contexts, history is what it is, not what we wish it to be, and it ain't cute.
+2 # EternalTruth 2017-10-10 12:46
I don't give a rats ass how "courageous" he was. It's disgusting to celebrate a rapist and child sex-trafficker. Tear down the statues.
+6 # chrisconno 2017-10-10 09:39
I have got to say that as a white atheist woman I couldn't be more ashamed or my white heritage. Part of my turn from Christianity had to do with the kind of god that is worshipped. What kind of god allows such atrocities? Between the near annihilation of the Native Americans to the African American slavery and continued racism to Trump's vilification of all immigrants, we are not a decent people. In fact we are the very incarnation of the devil oft cited by the Christians. I don't think we are going live long enough to redeem ourselves.
+2 # kyzipster 2017-10-10 12:17
I don't know how responsible we are for the sins of our ancestors. I do feel strongly that we should do our best to understand the sins, to correct history when needed and to support those who are oppressed by white supremacy. I think we should be judged by how we've lived our lives, not by the container we were born with. To suggest otherwise reeks of the 'original sin' of the Catholicism I was reared in, that I rejected outright at a young age.

It seems to me that we're all victims of patriarchy, white supremacy and the horrific institutions that stem from it. We can be both unjustly privileged and victims. As a white gay man, it gives me a certain perspective. Not unlike the perspective of a white woman. I'd like reparations for the money I spent on years of therapy because of growing up gay in the Bible Belt in the 60s and 70s (just kidding about the reparations).

A POC born in the US, enjoying cheap electronics, cheap gas, etc is benefiting from something like slave labor, horrific US foreign policy, etc. The global oppression of POC by 'First World' countries. When we push these arguments to an extreme, it leads to a sort of nihilism. Maybe that's what needs to happen for change, when no one is innocent, we might begin to do better.

Obama and his drone war, Hillary and her foreign policy, Colin Powell lying to the UN. Some Cherokee owned slaves in the South prior to The Trail of Tears. I don't know how much race and gender will matter moving into the future.
+3 # SusanT136 2017-10-11 05:52
While we aren’t personally responsible for the sins of our ancestors, if we’re allowing those oppressive systems put in place by them to continue, we’re guilty of complicity. I don’t know how far we have to go to make things right; many ugly forces/attitude s are rearing their ugly heads right now.

At least we could start acknowledgment of Native Americans by getting rid of Columbus Day and taking down the statues. Actually that would simply be an act of common decency: no more celebrating a brutal child sex trafficker who ordered people’s hands chopped off. Only by understanding the truth of how we got here (metaphorically and literally) can we begin to create a truly civilized society.
0 # kyzipster 2017-10-11 10:31
"if we’re allowing those oppressive systems put in place by them to continue, we’re guilty of complicity."

I agree completely. It's easy to condemn Civil War monuments and Columbus and his crimes against humanity. It makes us feel self righteous, like we're doing something. I support it but it's just symbolic. (that's not directed at your post, I'm not calling you self righteous)

It gets a little more complicated when our first African American president is guilty of crimes against humanity. I'm not one who is overly critical of Obama but the oppressive systems that are in place seem way beyond race and gender. It seems to me that much of the debate today is about better wealth distribution, equal opportunity to positions of power. Power that oppresses people all around the globe. I don't disagree with the need for that but how will that change anything beyond individuals gaining more wealth at the expense of others? 'The American Dream.' We need massive change that's beyond any individual or any demographic.
+8 # Kootenay Coyote 2017-10-10 10:23
The Doctrine of Discovery was not recognized by many European nations at the time of its promulgation, though they soon chose to benefit from its manifest injustice & absurdity, to say nothing of atrocious theology. In Canada, we are fortunate that the Treaty of 1783, which affirms equal legal status to Indigenous & Europeans, has at length been recognized as having precedence.
+5 # Adoregon 2017-10-10 15:04
Papal Bullshit and supreme court nonsense do not [legally or morally] justify or excuse the terrorism and genocidal theft inflicted on native peoples worldwide by greedy and smug Euro-trash.

Consider the native nations that lived on the American continents for thousands of years did so without trashing the environment or other species. Now, only a few centuries after the arrival of our
"civilized" ancestors, the environment has been poisoned, the oceans turned into cesspools and other species abused and casually evicted from their habitat.

Manifest destiny? Manifestly shameful behavior. All the self-serving laws in this world will not save us from the inexorable outcomes of the corporate- industrial rape of this planet.

Shame!!! Shame!!
0 # kyzipster 2017-10-11 10:49
I remember being taught in grade school about Columbus getting imprisoned after returning to Europe. The story told presented Columbus as a martyr, no mention of his crimes. The truth is that his 'governing' was so brutal and horrific that even Europeans of that era were moved to imprison him. He brutalized some his own people as well as the Native people, that might be the only reason he was imprisoned. He was pardoned by the king after 6 weeks in prison and his wealth was restored. It's good to see history slowly getting written with some truth. I think this move to get rid of Columbus Day is gaining ground. It's been a decades long effort.
0 # Allears 2017-10-11 15:53
It's still being 'promulgated'-w hen mining companies or miners displace land-based native populations or just kill them for quicker access. Why can't we stop it altogether? Answer that question and you'll know why the undercurrents of colonialism are still at work in North America.
0 # Wise woman 2017-10-11 19:46
Just another example of the dregs of society rising to the top like bad cream to destroy any good in their environment. And just like today, our "HIStory" books are full of the big cover up. When that stops with a the lies and excuses, perhaps these evil men will not have the same "success"
they've so long enjoyed. Should we start with trump? Let's see what's written about him after the fact.
0 # elkingo 2017-10-12 00:43
Whitey goes around the world fucking up everything. Do we have a gene for assholism or something?
0 # elkingo 2017-10-12 00:46
And I am surprised by RBG, heretofore my idol.

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