Doctrine of Christian Discovery

Linford D. Fisher

I’ve just returned from Montreal and the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion. As with most conferences recently, I found myself spending more time connecting with old and new colleagues in the field and exploring the host city than I did actually attending sessions (although in the future, I may try Randall’s time-passing exercise during dull sessions). Montreal, after all, is an amazing city with scads of culture, a cool topography, and a fascinating history. Best of all, it is saturated with pseudo-French/European culture. (Since my wife is a Francophile, traveling to Quebec is the next best thing to flying to France. And, at 5.5 hours away by car, it is a heck of a lot cheaper, too, especially if you are crazy enough to have four kids in tow.)

Most of the sessions I attended were—unsurprisingly—focused on issues related to North America’s indigenous populations, past and present. Two presentations stuck out to me. The first was by Steve Newcomb of the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation, titled “The Myth of Christian Discovery in Federal Indian Law,” which I took to be a summary of his 2008 book, Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery (Fulcrum).

Newcomb laid out how the “Doctrine of Discovery”—essentially the European notion that first “discovery” of new lands meant they held exclusive and transferrable rights to and dominion over the land, resources, and people that inhabited those lands—has a longer, specifically Christian history that is rooted in Old Testament notions of divinely-sanctioned conquest and a pervasive belief in the “chosen-ness” of a particular nation. More importantly, these ill-founded European beliefs, Newcomb argued, formed the ideological and intellectual rational for what is undoubtedly the watershed nineteenth century legal case regarding Native American land in the U.S.: Johnson v. McIntosh (1823), which proclaimed that the U.S. had acquired a free title to its lands through widely recognized standards of European colonization, thereby establishing the legal basis for U.S. occupation of lands and limiting the sale and purchase of additional Indians lands to the U.S. government, not to individuals. (Although, as Stuart Banner points out in How the Indians Lost Their Land, this process of centralizing land sales had been in motion since early colonial times.)

As I often do in some of these contexts, I found myself feeling like an outsider for all the reasons you might suspect. After all, there are (at least) two worlds of discourse regarding American Indians and their past and present role in American culture. The first is the more academic (read: distanced) discourse of people like myself who study these issues with care and concern, but who are also interested in presenting a “responsible,” balanced narrative of the past, often with only secondary interest in the present. The second is an often-sidelined world of Natives themselves who, for very good reasons, can no longer tolerate the even-handedness of the academy in the face of the simply scandalous and hypocritical treatment of natives, past and present, and who, indeed, often suspect that academics themselves have merely served to perpetuate the complacency and ignorance of non-Native Americans. (Non-Native, non-academic Americans possibly constitute a third world of discourse about Natives, namely one that operates in the realm of stereotypes, indifference, and blithe ignorance, although in truth, this is perhaps more a world of non-discourse discourse, since not much is usually said.)

I’ve increasingly been in conversation with this second world, this realm of discourse, this window into the lived reality of present-day Natives, for quite some time now. Nonetheless, I am always a bit taken aback by it. What struck me once again is the level of passion exhibited by the Native presenters, and, at times, what feels like over-the-top, sweeping rhetoric regarding the intentionality of the U.S. government and the average American relating to Indian mistreatment, past and present. Although I’d like to think that my classes on Native history and the colonial period are progressive and argue for a Native perspective on these issues, in comparison to this world, my reading lists seem tame, almost irrelevant.

A second paper presentation reminded me of the similar and, often, parallel experiences Canada’s indigenous populations have had and continue to have. Jennifer Reid of the University of Maine, Farmington, presented on “The Doctrine of Discovery in Canadian Law.” One of the examples she used was of the 1950s semi-forced removal of several hundred Inuit from Inukjuak in northern Quebec to a desolate tip of land in present-day Nunavut, deep into the Arctic Circle. Resolute, as the town is now known, is the second northern-most town in all of Canada, and has an annual average temperature of 2.5 degrees Fahrenheit (July highs are a balmy 35 F). In 1953, the Canadian government, in a Cold War attempt to assert sovereignty over and occupation in the extreme northern parts of Canada, decided that the best way to prove possession was to send someone to this dark and desolate part of the world. But who would go? No one, as it turns out, at least not willingly. So the government turned to the very indigent Inuit population who they mistakenly assumed would easily adapt to an even more difficult environment than the one they called home on the edge of the Hudson Bay. To make it more attractive, the Canadian government promised the Inuit all kinds of government assistance if they would kindly move north. As it turns out, those that did go immediately realized their mistake when they were dropped off in the middle of nowhere with none of the promised governmental support. To make things worse, the option of returning after two years never manifested. Instead, the group was essentially abandoned. In her presentation, Reid tied governmental policies in this case to the Doctrine of Discovery (and, in part, the precedent set by Johnson v. McIntosh), particularly to ideas about occupation and possession (along with the idea that native populations have often been seen as pawns of European governments).

Amazingly, this band of Inuit survived, although they are understandably a bitter bunch. The morning after this presentation, I opened up Canada’s national newspaper, The Globe and Mail, and found on page three an essay on the arrival of the Olympic torch to this very town in Nunavut (current population around 300). And—even more shockingly, it was in a whole section called “Indigenous Issues.” Hmmm. I’m not trying to idealize Canada here, but every time I travel north, I get the sense that aboriginal issues are far more mainstream in Canadian culture and legislation than in the U.S. I imagine there is a variety of reasons for this—population differentials (Canadian Natives make up approximately 4% of the population in Canada, compared to 1.5% in the U.S.), strength of advocacy groups, etc., but there seems to be something more, too. To be fair to the U.S., cultural awareness of Native communities and issues varies from region to region, usually related, again, to how numerous or vocal local Natives are. But still, something tells me that things are different when the U.S. President meeting with American Indian leaders causes such a stir in the national headlines, as happened on Nov. 5 of this year.

Either way, the problem is still this: How do we get these two worlds (Native and academic) to connect, and how can we find a middle ground to talk about issues like the role of religion in these past and present atrocities? Francis Jennings’s passionate The Invasion of America (1975) is passé for most historians of early America; his vitriol seems odd and out of place, as does Vine Deloria, Jr.’s admirable and timeless Custer Died for Your Sins (1969). But it is that passion, that seemingly over-the-top expose of European ruthlessness that is precisely at the center of most of the present-day rhetoric I hear heard time and again from Native activists and scholars. Does this feel uncomfortable to some of us because academics are trained to view things in a more nuanced, “balanced” way? Or is it in part because non-Indian academics have so little at stake in this conversation?

I am grateful that there are many excellent Native scholars who are either in Ph.D. programs or who are already teaching in universities around the country. Perhaps it is these individuals who can do the most to bring these various worlds together. (I’ve appreciated, for example, Ned Blackhawk’s prize-winning Violence Over the Land [Harvard, 2006]; there are many other great examples out there as well). I am also grateful for the chance to have two Navajo students in my seminar this semester on Indian and European encounters in early America. Their presence reminds all of us that the past is not really past, even when we are talking about the colonial period.

Then again, every now and then you meet non-Natives with that same passion. Last week I presented a rather critical re-contextualization of Henry Hudson at a Brown alumni event in New York City (given that NYC has been celebrating the 400th anniversary of Hudson’s “discovery” of Manhattan Island and of the river that now bears his name). Afterward, one alum strongly hinted that I should be doing something “real” with my time by getting involved in ongoing Native legal claims against the U.S. government regarding broken nineteenth century land treaties. Quoting an executive of Apple who was trying to recruit the head of Pepsi-cola in the 1980s, he told me: “Sir, you can either make sugar water for the rest of your life, or you can choose to do something real.” On some days, I agree; on others, I hope that we all are doing something “real” by teaching the next generation of leaders and lending our support in local situations as we have opportunity.


Linford Fisher said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Randall said…
Linford: Thanks for the summary. Nice to read this since I was only at the conference for a short period. I had a similar kind of "outsider" feeling, in a good way.

Montreal. What an amazing city!
Samira said…
Lin, it seems to me that educating undergrads, and in some ways, specifically undergrads who will go on to work in feeds far from religion, American history, Native American stuff is the BEST way to combat the stereotyped images of Native Americans. They could easily ignore most political movements, but if you can change the way they think without freaking them out, you are doing a ton to erode at acceptance of stereotypes. Which makes your work very political, and also, perhaps, more likely to create social change than more explicitly activist work. (Or at least to create a different kind of change.)
Samira said…
Excuse me, fields far from religion. Perhaps I am overly focused on my need to get lunch!
dsw said…
I actually missed the panel on the Doctrine of Discovery. I went out the night before with a bunch of Canadians and decided to sleep in that day! There was a lot of indigenous stuff going on, I assumed that since it was in Canada, and they wanted to highlight that in sessions and after-hours events, they turned to what would be most interesting to non-Canadians... Indians. I also agree with the blogger that Indian issues are more front and center in Canada, I think it has to do with their different history with African-Americans, while in the U.S. they became the most focused on minority and Indians were pushed into the realm of

I don't know who the blogger is, so I don't know if he went to any of the same panels I went to (maybe he should have attended more of the conference rather than taking in the "pseudo-French culture", I also took in the "Quebecois" culture but managed to spend a lot of time at the conference too!). But, the respondent on my panel was Michael Doxtator, a Canadian Mohawk scholar of indigenous studies who writes about traditional knowledge and decolonization. He was fantastic, intelligent, fiery, I imagine everything the blogger was looking for.

I disagree with the whole thing about meshing scholastic approaches, or worlds. The indigenous studies program at my university is known for being very, well, militant, like what I assume the blogger was calling for. There is important and good work over there, but, it is not religious studies. It feels like the blogger is romanticizing this image of the militant Indian, the warrior. As evidenced by the fact that his two Navajo students represent something by being in class, but are silent in his description of them. I have received positive feedback from indigenous students in my courses, and still, or perhaps because, of my "even handed approach." I think it is possible to present a very ugly history, without watering it down, and without turning to activism, and yet keep the conversation at an analytical level. I can take Native concerns seriously and remain in the scholastic "first world" (although really I am trying to get rid of these distinctions - they too easily reinforce stereotyped images of Indians and keep them at arms length from the conversation).

I could keep going on, but I'll stop there. Thank you for the post.
Anonymous said…
Quite frankly every human is capable of philosophical insights that transcend politics and society's wheels...we should base all discussions on the fact that this is an earth village and we are educating, our collective histories, a point of view or an ideology not discussing who is right and wrong...we already know this based on statistical data..victims and the dead show us