Doctrine of Discovery

Until last year, I had only marginal knowledge of the Doctrine of Discovery. I don’t ever remember it being referred to throughout my primary and secondary education. Maybe my scant knowledge came from mention of it in college. I can’t truly recall. My daughter confirms she’s never heard of such a thing and she’s just completed her freshman year in high school. What I have come to understand however, is that this journey through the national parks and reservations would be a very different kind of journey had I not taken the time to understand this part of our Euro-American history – and its impact on those it has been enacted upon. This Christian doctrine has impacted indigenous peoples across the globe for centuries and continues to have a severe impact on the indigenous peoples of the Americas. “According to the centuries-old Doctrine of Discovery, European nations acquired title to the lands they ‘discovered’ and Indigenous inhabitants lost their natural rights to that land after Europeans had arrived and claimed it (Watson, Blake. Buying America from the Indians: Johnson vs. McIntosh” and the History of Native Land Rights. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2012). This is a standard and legalistic definition.  It’s impact however on the indigenous inhabitants in the United States is best described by author Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz: “Under this legal cover of theft, Euro-American wars of conquest and settler colonialism devastated Indigenous nations and communities, ripping their territories away from them and transforming the land into private property, real estate. Most of that land ended upin the hands of land speculators and agribusiness operators, many of which, up to the mid-nineteenth century, were plantations worked by another form of private property, enslaved Africans. Arcane as it may seem, the doctrine remains the basis for federal laws still in effect that control Indigenous peoples’ lives and destinies, even their histories by distorting them” (Dunbar-Ortiz, Roxanne. An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States. Boston, Beacon Press, 2014).

Understanding this doctrine (and our call to repudiate it) underscores my study of the history, culture, relationship, organization and future of the parks and reservations.

An excellent Youtube video on the Doctrine of Discovery was produced in 2015 by Eclecticreel ( in partnership with Suriname Indigenous Health Fund ( and can be found here:

 Other suggested resources about the Doctrine of Discovery (DoD):

  • A helpful fact sheet about the DoD, provided by the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) who are involved in extensive DoD repudiation work: .
  • Indigenous Law Institute:
  • ** An excellent book: Pagans in the Promise Land, Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery, Steven T. Newcomb, (Shawnee/Lanape), cofounder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute.
  • A Doctrine of Discovery Study Group, an interfaith and interdisciplinary group studying the Doctrine of Discovery:
  • This article from the National Catholic Reporter outlines the Catholic Church’s response to the DoD; it is the papal bulls of the 15th century that outlined this document and land-claiming policy:
  • ** Consider watching the documentary The Doctrine of Discovery: Unmasking the Domination By Dakota filmmaker Sheldon Wolfchild and based on the book Pagans in the Promised Land. Tells the compelling story of how Vatican documents of the 15th century resulted in a tragic global momentum of domination and dehumanization leading to law systems in the U.S., Canada and elsewhere that are still used against Original Nations and Peoples to this day. The film concludes with traditional teachings developed over thousands of years that provide a much needed alternative for humans and the ecological systems of Mother Earth at this time.

The UCC’s Response to the Doctrine of Discovery:

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