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Pope Renounces Doctrine of Discovery; Catholics and Other Occupiers Still Here

Last month, Pope Francis renounced the Doctrine of Discovery, so our Lakota neighbors can now kick us all off the prairie, right?

Popes in the 1400s formulated the Doctrine of Discovery, basically the notion of “finders keepers, natives weepers” for Spanish and Portuguese adventurers staking claims to resources in the heathen lands of Africa and the Western Hemisphere. European explorers ran roughshod over the technicalities of those papal bulls, and the Vatican annulled them in the 1500s, but the Doctrine of Discovery became part of American case law:

The doctrine achieved its more modern formulation in the 1823 U.S. Supreme Court case Johnson v. M’Intosh. Chief Justice John Marshall’s opinion in that landmark case held that,

“On the discovery of this immense continent, the great nations of Europe … in order to avoid conflicting settlements, and consequent war with each other … established a principle which all should acknowledge as the law by which the right of acquisition, which they all asserted, should be regulated as between themselves. This principle was that discovery gave title to the government by whose subjects, or by whose authority, it was made, against all other European governments … . The history of America, from its discovery to the present day, proves, we think, the universal recognition of these principles.”

The enormous historical potency of the Doctrine of Discovery, as it was embodied into American constitutional law, can be seen in a Supreme Court decision authored as recently as 2005. In that case, the most liberal of recent justices, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, invoked the doctrine, in ruling against a land claim by the Oneida Indians (of the New York and Great Lakes region) [Clay S. Jenkinson, “What the Repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery Means for Indian Country,” Governing, 2023.04.09].

So theoretically, Lakota and other activists could go to court or the Governor’s mansion or Senator Lee Schoenbeck’s house and say, “Hey, you have no right to be here. Pope says so. Vamoose.” And Lee and a majority of the Supreme Court would have to listen, since they’re Catholics! Pope Francis moved back to Rome from his native/conquered homeland of Argentina—shouldn’t all good Catholics now be following him back to Italy?

It’s nice of Pope Francis to offer this expression of “concern and pastoral solicitude” for indigenous peoples. But I haven’t seen any Catholics or other ongoing beneficiaries of the Doctrine of Discovery giving their Land Back. And that, really, is the only logical conclusion of the repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery and the land acknowledgement statements that are becoming popular, innit? If we are going to declare that our invader-ancestors acted without right, then we are declaring that we are present without right, and the only right thing to do is exit right, right back to England or Portugal or Germany, right?

I’m hearing applause, but I’m not hearing feet, not even my own. So unless we stop being here, declarations that we have no right to be here seem rather empty.


  1. sx123 2023-04-11 06:30

    There would be no end to worldwide reshuffling if people went back from where their ancestors came. There would probably be some loops in there too, North America would end up with only animals, and Africa would then contain all of the world’s population.

  2. larry kurtz 2023-04-11 07:01

    This isn’t rocket science, either.

    David Treuer was born of a Holocaust survivor and Ojibwe mother. He wrote in The Atlantic that he believes that most land held in America’s national parks should be remanded to Indigenous peoples but it’s my view that the most of the land held in the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service should also be part of that trust.

  3. Richard Schriever 2023-04-11 08:39

    Better would be to renounce the notion of the nation-state, it’s mighty fortress(es) foundationed on landlordiness and serfishness. The whole world then becomes; the Roman Empire?? Or no-man’s land/God’s land. Just rambling this AM. Pay me no mind.

  4. Mark Anderson 2023-04-11 10:52

    You know the Vikings in Norway were given the choice of liberty by Jesus or death. They nearly all chose Jesus. The give me liberty or death thingy is overplayed. It was played out later in America and Africa. Just takes a generation or two.

  5. DaveFN 2023-04-11 11:28

    “…the only right thing to do is exit right, right back to England or Portugal or Germany, right?”

    Like they will welcome being overrun by hoards claiming their right to return to ancestral lands, lands which in light of population migrations over time never existed.

    Great way to create the greatest number of dispossessed and wandering migrants ever.

    “…declarations that we have no right to be here seem rather empty.”

    Yep, whether made by the Pope or by anyone else.

  6. David Bergan 2023-04-11 12:36

    Look-backs arbitrarily stop somewhere. Do the Black Hills belong to the Sioux or the Cheyenne or the Arikara? Or none of the above because the Indians themselves invaded North America, just thousands of years earlier?

    Does Jerusalem belong to the Arabs who had it during the Crusades? The Romans who had it in Christ’s day The Jews who had it in Solomon’s day? The Canaanites who lost it to Joshua?

    Does this reasoning also mean that Kiev belongs to the successor state of the Soviet Union since that was its position 70 years ago? I know a guy who thinks that…

    Kind regards,

  7. bearcreekbat 2023-04-11 14:16

    Of course it is, generally speaking, a matter of perspective whether one group or another had a legal or moral right to occupy land before another group occupied it. In the case of the Black Hills there is an additional, and much more troubling, perspective.

    Prior to taking the Black Hills the U.S. established a Constitution that on its face provided the rules that the U.S. promised to live by. One of those rules stated, and still states, in relevant part:

    This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding. (emphasis added)

    U.S. Constitution, Article VI, Clause 2 (a/k/a the “Supremacy Clause”).

    The Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 declared as a matter of law that the Black Hills were deemed to be Sioux land. The consideration for such a declaration that the Black Hills would remain Sioux land was a corresponding agreement by the Sioux to no longer wage war on the U.S. To the best of my knowledge the Sioux nation never once violated this promise. The U.S., however, unilaterally repudiated this aspect of the Fort Laramie Treaty by taking the Black Hills away from the the legal owners, in direct violation of the Constitutionally designated “supreme Law of the land.”

    From that particular perspective it would seem that under the U.S. Constitution, then, the Sioux nation has a better legal claim, and if morality can be based on U.S. law, a better moral claim, than the Cheyenne or the Arikara or any other group previously occupying the Black Hills. Of course, setting aside U.S. morals and the supposedly binding Constitution, subsequent U.S. courts and other powers that be have determined otherwise.

  8. David Bergan 2023-04-11 16:29

    Hi BCB!

    Thanks for the legal history of the Black Hills. Do you know if the U.S. Government knew about the prior history of the Sioux driving off the other tribes? To my sense of morality, I would prefer that one of the more peaceful tribes would be given consideration over the bullies.

    Kind regards,

  9. Mark Anderson 2023-04-11 18:10

    David, with whom was the treaty made? I believe that all former residents of the hills were Native American. The Cheyenne helped wipe out Custer so they should get at least Hot Springs. Imagine a Custer presidency. Trump early, although Bone Spur would still diss the General because he was a loser ala McCain.

  10. David Newquist 2023-04-11 18:34

    The signatories to the Ft. Laramie Treaty of 1868 are:
    Executed on the part of the Brule band of Sioux by the chiefs and headman whose names are hereto annexed, they being thereunto duly authorized, at Fort Laramie, D. T., the twenty-ninth day of April, in the year A. D. 1868.

    MA-ZA-PON-KASKA, his X mark, Iron Shell.
    WAH-PAT-SHAH, his X mark, Red Leaf.
    HAH-SAH-PAH, his X mark, Black Horn.
    ZIN-TAH-GAH-LAT-WAH, his X mark, Spotted Tail.
    ZIN-TAH-GKAH, his X mark, White Tail.
    ME-WAH-TAH-NE-HO-SKAH, his X mark, Tall Man.
    SHE-CHA-CHAT-KAH, his X mark, Bad Left Hand.
    NO-MAH-NO-PAH, his X mark, Two and Two.
    TAH-TONKA-SKAH, his X mark, White Bull.
    CON-RA-WASHTA, his X mark, Pretty Coon.
    HA-CAH-CAH-SHE-CHAH, his X mark, Bad Elk.
    WA-HA-KA-ZAH-ISH-TAH, his X mark, Eye Lance.
    MA-TO-HA-KE-TAH, his X mark, Bear that looks behind.
    BELLA-TONKA-TONKA, his X mark, Big Partisan.
    MAH-TO-HO-HONKA, his X mark, Swift Bear.
    TO-WIS-NE, his X mark, Cold Place.
    ISH-TAH-SKAH, his X mark, White Eye.
    MA-TA-LOO-ZAH, his X mark, Fast Bear.
    AS-HAH-HAH-NAH-SHE, his X mark, Standing Elk.
    CAN-TE-TE-KI-YA, his X mark, The Brave Heart.
    SHUNKA-SHATON, his X mark, Day Hawk.
    TATANKA-WAKON, his X mark, Sacred Bull.
    MAPIA SHATON, his X mark, Hawk Cloud.
    MA-SHA-A-OW, his X mark, Stands and Comes. [No smart ass remarks, please.]
    SHON-KA-TON-KA, his X mark, Big Dog.

    A treaty was signed the same year between the U.S. and the Navajo. Although there have been some incursions, the Navajo possession of the land has largely been honored.

  11. larry kurtz 2023-04-11 19:58

    In 2019 during an episode of The Keepers, a podcast produced by the Kitchen Sisters and NPR, the lead Archivist at the National Archives told listeners lawyers are combing the records for treaties with tribal nations none of which have been honored by the United States.

    In 1980 attorney Mario Gonzalez filed the federal court case stopping payment of the Black Hills Claim award to the Oglala Lakota Nation. Gonzalez contends that the commission charged to make peace with tribes inserted language into the Fort Laramie Treaty signed in 1868 that Red Cloud had neither seen nor agreed to in negotiations. After the defeat of the 7th Cavalry at Greasy Grass in 1876 and the Great Sioux War Congress abrogated that treaty in 1877 and the Utes, Lakota, Arapaho, Cheyenne and others who migrated, lived and hunted all along the Front Range were driven into concentration camps.

    Despite the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851 President Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Act in 1862 that distributed unceded lands in the public domain to raise funds for colleges. The Morrill Land-Grant Acts are directly linked to the Native American Genocide and Colorado State University is just one of those offenders.

    The South Dakota Democratic Party should advocate for paying the tribes and settling the Black Hills Claim, dissolving the Black Hills National Forest, moving management of the land from the US Department of Agriculture into the Department of Interior in cooperation with Bureau of Indian Affairs Division of Forestry and Wildfire Management. Mato Paha (Bear Butte), the associated national grasslands and the Sioux Ranger District of the Custer/Gallatin National Forest should be included in the move.

  12. DaveFN 2023-04-11 21:48

    David Bergan

    “….the Indians themselves invaded North America, just thousands of years earlier..”

    Ooh. Them is fightin’ words. Our natives believe they did not come from Siberia across a land bridge but emerged out of Wind Cave, right here in the Black Hills.

    Yeah, right. Like my 256 7th great grandparents did, too.

  13. jakc 2023-04-11 22:42

    Keep in mind that part of the reason the Lakota moved west was the increasing pressure from Americans moving west. Did the US government know about this? Well, in Devember 1862, the US hung 38 Dakota (Santee) for fighting for their land in Minnesota (and far more than the number of Confederate leaders tbe US hung after the war). So yeah, the US knew something of the history of the Sioux.

    One point about the 1868 treaty is that the US gave land that their allies, the Absaroka (Crow) also claimed to the Sioux. I suppose the Crow are one of the peaceful tribes, peaceful because they fought with the Sioux and not the US, mentioned earlier.

    As for the 1868 treaty, like every Indian treaty, we should keep a couple of points in mind. The treaty was written by the US, not by the Sioux. Many of those provisions were ridiculous and frankly beyond the authority of the Lakota men signing the treaty to agree to or to authorize. And of course, many important Lakota men didn’t sign. It can hardly be surprising that a written treaty in 1868 didn’t have a lot of meaning didn’t have a lot of meaning to the Lakota, who didn’t write and didn’t value writing in the way Americans did. The failure of the US to live up to the treaty is a different thing altogether.

  14. larry kurtz 2023-04-12 10:56

    The repeal of this papal bull was in the works while Jorge Bergoglio was still an apologist for ethnic cleansing in his own Argentina.

    All right. It’s instinctive. But the instinct can be fought. We’re human beings with the blood of a million savage years on our hands, but we can stop it. We can admit that we’re killers, but we’re not going to kill today. That’s all it takes. Knowing that we won’t kill today. Contact Vendikar. I think you’ll find that they’re just as terrified, appalled, horrified as you are, that they’ll do anything to avoid the alternative I’ve given you. Peace or utter destruction. It’s up to you.

  15. jakc 2023-04-12 15:14

    Sure, that might work for the Eminians and the Vendikarians, but they aren’t humans … (the glorious results of a misspent youth watching reruns on cable tv from Denver)

  16. Arlo Blundt 2023-04-12 17:48

    About time the Vatican acknowledged the history of exploration and exploitation. Francis, with an Italian family background, was born and raised in South America and is somewhat sensitive to indigenous people. The next Pope likely, is coming from Africa. It is a slow creep the church is taking toward “modernity.”

  17. Sarah 2023-04-12 19:19

    I’m Lakota from Pine Ridge. And MY plan is to get the hell out of dodge. Guess where I’m going? I’m going where YOU’RE from. Especially you Swiss and Danes 🤣

    Yes sirs/ma’ams, your countries look mighty fine to me. After whatever all this is that’s been created here in this country, I’m taking my whole clan and emigrating. 🖐🏼

  18. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2023-04-12 19:45

    Sarah, that’s a remarkable, ironic, and perhaps eminently sensible plan. Can we count on our European cousins to treat indigenous people better than we have?

  19. leslie 2023-04-13 09:52

    “It is possible that the pope’s pronouncement will set the stage for significant reforms in white-native relations over the next decades.”

    Locally, the He Sapa land claim under the 1868 Treaty has continued to bubble. But this also sets the stage for BLM and reparations as well. Racism everywhere is criticized as “too divisive, too radical”. This is a Pope of deep, deep good conscience. Exactly where the Democratic Party must continue to reside in its attempt to rescue our democracy. These are the most fundamental underpinnings of our lives, and Rapid Citians are fortunate to be able to just drive a mere 90 miles to Pine Ridge for the true AMERICAN EXPERIENCE. Or a mere 30 or so miles up to Pe Sla’, the native “church” the Indians were able to buy-back recently, deed and all, as they have properly owned anyway!

    It’s all about the money, Americans!

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