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What is the Doctrine of Discovery?

The True Story of the Colonization of the United States of America

Fourteen minutes telling the true story of the colonization of the United States

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The Doctrine of Discovery is a principle of international law dating from the late 15th century. It has its roots in a papal decree issued by Pope Nicholas V in 1452 that specifically sanctioned and promoted the conquest, colonization, and exploitation of non-Christian territories and peoples. Hundreds of years of decisions and laws continuing right up to our own time can ultimately be traced back to the Doctrine of Discovery—laws that invalidate or ignore the rights, sovereignty, and humanity of indigenous peoples in the United States and around the world.

In 1823, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Johnson v. M'Intosh that the discovery rights of European sovereigns had been transferred to the new United States:

The United States, then, have unequivocally acceded to that great and broad rule by which its civilized inhabitants now hold this country. They hold and assert in themselves, the title by which it was acquired. They maintain, as all others have maintained, that discovery gave an exclusive right to extinguish the Indian title of occupancy, either by purchase or conquest; and gave also a right to such a degree of sovereignty, as the circumstances of the people would allow them to exercise.

Associate Justice Joseph Story, a Unitarian, (1779-1845) later wrote: "As infidels, heathens, and savages, they [the Indians] were not allowed to possess the prerogatives belonging to absolute, sovereign and independent nations."

Find out more about the history by exploring these resources:

Videos

  • The Doctrine of Discovery: Unmasking the Domination Code (2015), directed by Sheldon P. Wolfchild and narrated by Buffy Sainte-Marie. This 61-minute video explains how the 1493 Doctrine of Discovery became encoded into US Law and history and why it matters today. Purchase a personal copy ($25) or an educational institution copy ($50) from 38 Plus 2 Productions.
  • Professor Robert J. Miller, of Lewis and Clark University, speaks about The Doctrine of Discovery and Manifest Destiny (30:56) and explains how the doctrine undergirded the settlement and colonization of the United States. The ten points that Miller explains in the video can be found on the site of The Indigenous Peoples Forum on the Impacts of the Doctrine of Discovery.

Websites

Books

All the Real Indians Died Off And 20 Other Myths About Native Americans

By Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Dina Gilio-Whitaker

From Beacon Press

Unpacks the twenty-one most common myths and misconceptions about Native Americans...

Buy This Book

Portrait of Joseph Story

Joseph Story

Joseph Story was an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court at the time of the Johnson v. M'Intosh decision. He was also President of the American Unitarian Association, 1844 - 1845.

Steven T. Newcomb on Christian Doctrine of Discovery

Steven T. Newcomb of the Indigenous Law Institute on the Doctrine of Discovery (5:06).

Chief Oren Lyons on Doctrine of Discovery

Chief Oren Lyons is a Native American Faithkeeper of the Turtle Clan of the Seneca Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy. He reveals how the Doctrine of Discovery came about in 1493 after Columbus's return to Europe and how it was inserted into US policy. Lyons gave the talk to Humboldt State University students on Columbus Day. Uploaded on Oct 13, 2010. (14:44)

Book Cover for An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States

Puritan Theology and Genocide of Indigenous People

Puritan ancestors bequeathed today's UUs many of our congregational governance ideas. They also left us with a legacy that included the theological underpinnings that led to genocide of indigenous peoples in New England and beyond. The UU Mass Action First Nations working group recommends the book, Hidden Genocide, Hidden People by Dennis Cerrotti, to help us understand what happened and why it matters to Unitarian Universalists today, especially those who live in New England. The group has developed a four-session on line study guide for the book and other related materials.

Hidden People, Hidden Genocide study guide and related resources