The Doctrine of Discovery is the basis for much international law and for United States real estate law. It is also the basis of the story many of us have been taught about the history of the United States. Explore this story, and follow clues to how the Doctrine of Discovery is embedded in the cultural and historical narrative of the United States! Discover why our immigration justice partners in Arizona have asked us to learn about this story and join them as allies in calling for the repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery.
Use the Doctrine of Discovery Discussion Guide (PDF, 10 pages) to explore the issues further in your congregation or group.
Note: This is the script for the 14 minute video.
Grandparent (GP): Hey, what’s that book you are reading?
Grandchild (GC): It’s about the adventures of the explorers who came here and discovered a whole new continent.
GP: Oh? A whole new continent! New to them, maybe…But not for the people who were already living here.
GC: Oh, the explorers traded with them and bought their land. The people who got here first had the right to offer things to the Indians here and buy their land from them—it was like a race!
CG: (making a voice) Don’t worry, Grandpa—it was all a fair trade.
GP: “Fair”, huh? Let’s begin at the beginning. Have you ever made up your own game?
GC: All the time! My friends and I figure out the rules and then we play.
GF: What if your friends gave you no say in what the rules are?
GC: Umm, I probably wouldn’t want to play the game.
GF: Well, the story of the explorers and American Indians is like a game where one group makes the rules and the other group couldn’t refuse to play and had to obey the rules they had no say in. And it’s not over.
GC: (Skeptical) Not over? There is nothing left to discover!
GF: Maybe not land, but you know there are clues to discover from long ago And they are still all over the place.
GC: Clues! Cool! A mystery!
GF: Yes, a mystery, because the real story has been hidden for so long. It begins hundreds of years ago, when the kings and queens of Europe learned about a continent that existed across the Atlantic from Europe. These rulers were part of the Christian church in Europe, and they lived by a rule that it was OK for Christians to conquer other people who were not Christian and to take their land and demand that they become Christian.
GC: Yeah, the Crusades!
GF: They based this rule on the story from the Bible of Joshua and the Battle of Jericho.
GC: The one where they surrounded the walls of the city, and blew trumpets, and the walls came tumbling down?
GF: That’s the one. The story was written down thousands of years ago in the book of Joshua, and describes how the Israelites came to settle in the Promised Land, a land called Canaan and how they took the land for themselves because God wanted them to do that. In the story God says: Every place that the sole of your foot will tread upon I have given to you...
GC: (Correcting the old man) Umm—Grandpa? That happened in Israel, not in America!
GF: (Laughs) Well, the Europeans believed that God had given them what they called the new world (even though it wasn’t all that new to the people who lived there already)- and that they should take control of it and have power over all its people and all its resources.
GC: (Skeptical) Right.
GF: Hold, on! I’m going to prove it…
GF: (Pause) In 1493
GC: Columbus discovered America!
GF: In 1493 he returned to Europe and told people what he had found and Pope Alexander VI declared that Catholic Kings had “natural law and right” to claim any lands not already claimed by another Christian monarch. He made a set of rules—what came to be called the Doctrine of Discovery that said it was God’s plan for Christians to claim ownership of Native American lands because the Indians were not Christian. Of course, no one asked the Indians about these new rules of international law. There are lots of paintings of explorers setting foot on American soil, planting flags and crosses to claim it for the king.
GC: It’s so unfair to make those claims. But that’s Spain and Portugal—we would never do something like that! I mean Pilgrims in Massachusetts and the settlers in Virginia!
GF: Oh? Really. The interesting thing about making up your own rules is you can make them in a way that guarantees you get to win. See, the English and the French did not like that Spain and Portugal were claiming all of the “new world” from explorers setting foot on soil and planting flags and crosses. So they made-up another rule that said since part of the Bible story was that you had to occupy the land and cultivate it to claim it, planting flags just wasn’t enough. Then the king of England, who did not want to spend money to pay for colonies to occupy land and make it his, granted charters to groups of people to come and settle in what is now North America. And they came with the same Joshua story,believing that God’s law—and international law—entitled them to take this “Promised Land” to farm it, occupy it and make money from it.
GC: (Learning something) Wha?
GF: Now, I’m going to prove it, my boy. What is the name of the Promised Land in the story of Joshua?
GF: Canaan—like Canaan, Vermont, and Canaan, New York, and Canaan, New Hampshire, and Canaan, Maine, and Canaan, Connecticut or New Canaan, Connecticut.You know there are many streets called Canaan littered all over the northeastern part of what is now the United States. Those street names are an important clue to the Doctrine of Discovery—the early settlers thought they were entering a new Promised Land, a land that was given to them by God and they claimed under international law.
GC: Wait…wait…wait… The Indians were already there, they were already growing food and living on the land! So the land was Indian land! (Triumphant) What about that?
GF: Well, the Indians played the role of Canaanites in the Bible story—they weren’t Christian, and according to the Pope’s rule, they were to submit to being conquered or to perish. The first Governor of Massachusetts saw the Indians were dying from the diseases brought by the Europeans, and in 1634, Governor Winthrop said: “But for the natives in these parts, God hath so pursued them, as for 300 miles space the greatest part of them are swept away by smallpox which still continues among them. So as God hath thereby cleared our title to this place, those who remain in these parts, being in all not 50, have put themselves under our protection.”
GC: How can you remember that?
GF: I can because it is important.
GC: Okay, but that’s a really long time ago—1634! It’s all history! Awful history, gone and over.
GF: It is still with us today because people don’t remember what really happened and so they keep making the same mistakes. In 1630, Winthrop called this new land a “City on a Hill,” believing that in this land, Christians would build new model communities. That idea, the City on the Hill, is still a way people describe the United States—a land chosen by God to give to European Christians. In 1961, John Kennedy spoke of the “city on the hill.”
GC: Don’t you mean the video of President Regan talking about the shining city on the hill?
GF: (Laughs) Yes, that’s it. Now you are unraveling clues…
GC: (Thinking) OK, there’s the Joshua story and the city on the hill, but really, where do the Indians fit in to all of this?
GF: It’s more complicated than you can imagine.
GF: Another important rule in the Doctrine of Discovery declared that any land that was not farmed or inhabited by native people was basically empty and could be claimed by a European monarch.
GC: But what about hunting grounds?
GF: Declared empty because they weren’t farmed or fenced. But the rules made it even more complicated than that. The Doctrine of Discovery said that even when Native people are living in an area, a European king could claim Discovery Rights. That meant that the land was theirs as soon as the Indian right to the land was what they called reversed or “extinguished.”
GC: How would the right to the land be extinguished?
GF: Well, first off, it could be extinguished by selling the land to European settlers. But the Indians could only sell or trade with the king who had Discovery rights. They couldn’t sell to private people or to another government, so they couldn’t get the best price. They had to sell land cheaply if they wanted to get anything for it.
GC: So why did they sell?
GF: Follow the clues.
GC: When they didn’t sell, the land would be taken?
GF: Pretty much. Another way to extinguish an Indian claim to land was to take it as a result of battle. And there were often battles when settlers moved onto Indian land.
GC: Ok…OK…this makes the European kings look pretty bad and pretty unfair, but Americans weren’t like that. We didn’t want to live by unfair laws. That’s why we had a revolution and won our freedom from England.
GF: Well, as a matter of fact, one of the very first things the new United States did is to adopt the Doctrine of Discovery, and to lay claim to all the Indian land that had previously been owned by the British crown. The new US government claimed the sole right to deal with the Indian nations, and would not let them trade with or sell land to people or other nations.
GC: Oh. (Pause) Is that still true today?
GF: Yes, Indian nations within the territory of the United States are still forbidden to trade or sell land without permission of the US Congress.
GC: Another clue to the Doctrine of Discovery.
GF: But back to the Founding Fathers…
George Washington spoke of Indians as wild beasts, wolves that would retreat and die off before the advancing white settlements of the United States.
GC: But Washington was a General—what about the other founding fathers?
GF: Well, Thomas Jefferson was a lawyer, and was very interested in how those international Discovery laws could help the United States to grow larger. Jefferson believed that Indian claims to land could be extinguished not just by sale or by war, but also by assimilation or removal—either the Indians convert to European civilization or they would be pushed out make way for the advancing United States.
GC: That’s not fair!
GF: It’s not just “not fair”—the Government used the Indians to strengthen the Union.
GF: Because the new United States claimed Discovery rights over the Indian land, the Indians could only sell—at very low prices—to the United States government, but the US government turned around and sold the land to private individuals for a big profit. The money from the sale was to pay all the states’ debts from the Revolutionary War. The government bribed the states to give up some rights to the federal government, and accept the US Constitution in exchange for paying their debts.
GC: Wow! I’m getting the hang of clue hunting. Like the Louisiana Purchase—in school they teach that we bought it from France for pennies on the acre, and that it doubled the size of the United States—but I’ll bet that’s part of the story too!
GF: That’s right.
GC: (Sleuthing, picking up steam) Jefferson was responsible for that. But why did we buy it from France and not from the Indians?
GF: The Louisiana Purchase was not a real estate deal. What Jefferson bought was Discovery Rights to the area, meaning that the United States held exclusive trading rights, rights to buy property, and rights to the land once the Indian title was extinguished, provided that the territory was settled. He dispatched the explorers Lewis and Clark—I’ll bet you’ve heard of them—to trade with the Indians in the territory and to map it so pioneers could move in and the rights of the Indians could be extinguished. Jefferson sent Lewis and Clark all the way to the Northwest part of the continent to “discover” what is now Oregon and Washington in the name of the United States.
GC: How could that happen here? So the United States kept all those one-sided rules followed by kings and queens to their benefit!? How come I haven’t been taught this?
GF: It’s been well hidden—right in plain sight. We don’t question things that seem like they have always been a particular way. Native peoples having been calling for the repudiation of this doctrine for a long time, but it still exists today. That was the logic of the US Supreme Court in 1823 when it made the Doctrine of Discovery the law of this land in a famous case called Johnson v. M’Intosh.
GC: So why is this important now? Everything has been discovered, already. What good would it do to repudiate the Doctrine? We can’t reverse 500 years of history! Can we?
GF: It matters because it is never too late to right a wrong. Indigenous peoples all over the world are calling for the reversal of the Doctrine of Discovery because they have all been hurt by it and still suffer its effects. Maybe native people all over the world can’t get their land back, but it matters to accept responsibility for the unfairness of what happened to their people and culture. And there is something else, something really important.
GF: The story people tell about their country—The one you know deep in your heart. If that story says that European (or white) people are superior to native people and had a right to take their land, it is easier to treat people who are not Americans badly. If our story about our nation does not take into account how the indigenous people felt or were treated, it is easier to brush off the humanity of people that we don’t think belong to the superior group. It is easier to think of immigrants as a danger to the nation.
GC: Ah…I see. It’s all about the story.
GF: Yes…the story. And that’s why indigenous people who are working on immigrant justice want to talk about the Doctrine of Discovery—because how we behave as a nation, what laws we pass, and how we enforce those laws depends on the stories we tell about ourselves. GC: So what can I do?
GF: Look for more clues to that new story and help others to notice them, too. Be part of figuring out how to create a more just and fairer future for us all.
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Last updated on Thursday, September 26, 2013.
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