Doctrine of Discovery and Rights of Indigenous Peoples

Continuing Effects of the Doctrine of Discovery

Ware Lecturer Winona LaDuke addresses General Assembly 2010

Winona LaDuke, delivers the 2010 Ware Lecture at General Assembly. She is an Anishinaabekwe (Ojibwe) enrolled member of the Mississippi Band of Anishinaabeg who lives and works on the White Earth Indian Reservation and is the mother of three children. Winona founded the White Earth Land Recovery Project in 1989 and served as its Executive Director for 25 years. She is currently the Executive Director of Honor the Earth, where she works on a national level to advocate, raise public support, and create funding for frontline Native environmental groups.

Winona LaDuke: Decolonize Yourselves!

As Ware Lecturer at the 2010 General Assembly in Minneapolis, Winona LaDuke asked Unitarian Universalists: "How brave are we in our ability to deconstruct some of the paradigms we have perhaps embraced?"

View the full lecture

Over 4.1 million people in the United States identify as American Indian and/or Alaskan Native. Contrary to stereotype, about 64% of these 4.1 million people live in urban areas, and only about 37% live on reservations. [U.S. Census Bureau. We the People: American Indians and Alaskan Natives in the U.S. (PDF, 23 pages). Special Report, 2006.] The U.S. federal government currently recognizes 562 tribes, each of which is a sovereign nation that determines its own membership and exercises its own powers of government.

The injustices that Native peoples face today are varied. Some, including poverty, lack of access to quality health care and education, violence against women, commodification of resources and environmental degradation, affect many others in the United States, but are exacerbated in Native communities because of jurisdictional issues and historic marginalization. Other justice issues are unique to the lived experience of Native peoples. Many of those injustices flow from the Doctrine of Discovery and its legal and cultural successors, including the colonization and settlement of native lands, government policies that encouraged violence and forced assimilation, and the abrogation of sovereignty through broken treaties and court decisions.

Some (Of Many!) Continuing Effects of the Doctrine of Discovery


Beginning with the 1823 Johnson v. M'Intosh decision, the United States Supreme Court has used the Doctrine of Discovery as the basis for its decision making. The decision states, "discovery gave an exclusive right to extinguish the Indian title of occupancy, either by purchase or by conquest." The United States owns Indigenous lands; the native people have only the legal right of "occupancy." The decision, written by Chief Justice Marshall, further stated, "...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." Unlike other racist court decisions from the nineteenth century, this decision has never been revisited or overturned. Later cases stated that Indigenous peoples were domestic dependant nations of the United States. The Johnson v. M'Intosh decision and those that followed continue to be cited in court cases and decisions today.

To learn about the particulars of legal decisions about Native peoples in the United States, read the Statement on the Historical Use of the Doctrine of Discovery by the United States Supreme Court since 1823, a paper prepared for the 2014 "Doctrine of Christian Discovery: After Repudiation, What Next?" conference at the Skä•noñh Great Law of Peace Center, Liverpool, NY.

To understand the implications of U.S. law with regard to Indigenous peoples, view Colin Bossen's sermon, "This Land is Your Land?", winner of the 2014 Dana Greeley Sermon Competition.


Here are some examples of Indigenous people and allies pushing back against the environmental effects of the Doctrine of Discovery. Explore these examples, reflect on what they have to tell you, and find out what is happening where you live:

  • In her 2010 Ware Lecture, LaDuke pointed out that the United States dominant cultural narrative subscribes to a linear worldview, with continual "progress." The expectation is that technology will show us the way out of the environmental messes that are created by using and using up the natural world. She offers an Indigenous cyclical worldview as an alternative. Watch the clip (Video, 4:27) and reflect on where you can see a linear worldview in your life, in your community or in your nation? What would it look like if you, your community, or our nation held instead a cyclical worldview? How is a cyclical worldview in line with our Unitarian Universalist seventh principle, respect for the interdependent web of which we are a part?
  • The 2015 General Assembly in Portland, Oregon, participated in a sacred public witness in solidarity with Native and First Nations peoples. Delegates and attendees learned how the ecosystems and way of life of Original Peoples of the Western Hemisphere are being threatened by the environmental crisis. They learned how Lummi Nation is fighting to keep the largest coal port in North America from being built on Cherry Point, or Xwe'chi'eXen, because it would desecrate Lummi Nation sacred lands and waters. Delegates and attendees were called on to make spiritual commitments to climate justice and take action in solidarity with communities at the front lines of the environmental crisis. Find out more about this witness by reading the story of Bellingham Unitarian Fellowship. Where and how can you and your congregation be in partnership with Indigenous people to care for the environment?
  • The youth of the Unitarian Universalist Community Church of Augusta, Maine led a discussion following a showing of The Penobscot: Ancestral River, Contested Territory (Sunlight Media, 2015). The film illustrates the history of Penobscots' fight to retain their territory and their inherent, treaty-reserved sustenance fishing rights for future generations. It features the Penobscot people’s traditional, centuries-long stewardship to ensure a healthy ecosystem for all of Maine. How have Indigenous peoples in your area stewarded the land and worked to ensure healthy ecosystems. What are the factors that push against that stewardship?

Dominant Culture and National Identity

Here are but a few resources and links that will provide food for thought as you identify and deconstruct some of the ways in which the Doctrine of Discovery shows up in our day to day lives:

  • In Pirates, Boats, and Adventures in Cross-Cultural Engagement, a 2009 General Assembly workshop, Rev. Danielle DiBona, a Wampanoag Indian, explains how the hymn, We'll Build A Land, reminds her of how white European culture had built on Native land. Can you identify other commonly sung music, both Unitarian Universalist and secular, that indirectly or directly refers to discovery and colonization of North America?
  • Writer and director Thomas King, a Canadian who was born and raised in the US, offers I’m Not the Indian You Had in Mind a short film that challenges the stereotypical portrayal First Nations peoples in the media. How many of these stereotypes are familiar to you? How many were you unaware of before watching?
  • Young people often learn that U.S. history begins with the "Explorers" and then moves on to the "Colonists." Indigenous people are portrayed as an obstacle to the progress of American Manifest Destiny. In her book, An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States (Beacon, 2015), author Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz tells the United States story from the point of view of those who were here before European colonization began.
  • In her 2010 Ware Lecture, Winona LaDuke invited Unitarian Universalists to reflect on The Language of Empire (Video, 5:05). Watch the video clip, and then reflect on the practice of changing names of geographical landmarks to honor their European "discoverers." Raise awareness by inviting family and friends to help compile a list of examples in your area. If you want to learn more, read Firsting and Lasting: Writing Indians Out of Existence in New England, by Jean M. O'Brien (University of Minnesota Press, 2010).

An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States

By Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz

From Beacon Press

The 2019-2020 UUA Common Read The first history of the United States told from the perspective of indigenous peoples.

Buy This Book

UU Community Church of Augusta, Maine members sit with Penobscot Nation members at Legislative workshop on Violence Against Women Act.

Unitarian Universalist Community Church of Augusta, Maine, members attend Legislative workshop on Violence Against Women Act with members of the Penobscot Nation. January 2016.

Linear vs. Cyclical Worldviews

Excerpted from Winona LaDuke's 2010 Ware Lecture

The Language of Empire

Excerpted from Winona LaDuke's 2010 Ware Lecture

Deconstructing Myths about American Indians

"All the Real Indians Died Off" and 20 Other Myths about Native Americans by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz and Dina Gilio-Whitaker (Beacon, 2016) deconstructs persistent myths about American Indians, many of them rooted in narratives of erasure and disappearance. Organized in short chapters, one for each myth, the book is both revealing and accessible. Purchase it or find it at your public library and consider organizing a community or congregational book discussion.

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