Q+A | An Indigenous scholar on why the Pope needs to address the Doctrine of Discovery

Steve Newcomb has spent much of his career studying the Doctrine of Discovery, a series of 15th century papal decrees which empowered Europeans to colonize non-Christian lands in the Americas and beyond. He wants it revoked.

Steven Newcomb, Shawnee/Lenape scholar, calls it the 'Doctrine of Domination'

Pope Francis with Indigenous scholar Steven Newcomb, at St. Peter's Square in 2016. Newcomb has spent much of his career studying the Doctrine of Discovery, a series of 15th century papal decrees which empowered Europeans to colonize non-Christian lands in the Americas and beyond. He wants it revoked. (Submitted by Steve Newcomb)

Steve Newcomb calls it the "Doctrine of Domination." 

The Indigenous scholar, who is Shawnee/Lenape and originally from Portland, Oregon, has spent much of his career studying the Doctrine of Discovery, which originated in the form of papal bulls, edicts issued by the Catholic Church in the 15th century to empower Portugal and Spain to colonize, plunder and enslave West Africa and the Americas. Other colonial powers soon followed suit, and the doctrine became the basis for slavery and European claims over Indigenous land and people.

Newcomb is among many people calling on the Pope to explicitly acknowledge the Doctrine of Discovery and the harms it's caused. 

He spoke with the CBC's Jared Monkman on The Trailbreaker Wednesday. 

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

Before we get into what the Pope is or isn't saying today, I want to talk a little bit about the history of the Doctrine of Discovery. What happened when it was established? 

Well, before I go into that, I want to set the context for this conversation very briefly. And that context is the original free and independent existence of our nations and peoples, extending back to the beginning of time and the contrast between that free existence and the system of domination that was brought by ship across the ocean and imposed on everyone and everything throughout this hemisphere and many other parts of the world as well. 

And that system of domination is articulated and expressed in Vatican documents from the 15th century. And when you get into the specific Latin language of those documents, you see the patterns of domination and dehumanization that have been … exacted or imposed upon our nations and peoples over centuries. And so with that context in mind, we have to look at the overall responsibility that the church bears for having issued those documents repeatedly and… what's being called the Doctrine of Discovery. 

I prefer to call it the Doctrine of Domination, because in the Vatican papal bull of May 3, 1493, for example, it says that the explorers … that are going out throughout the world are to locate those places that are not yet under the domination of any Christian dominators. And that's key. And that that specific language is what the pope is not addressing at all and the Vatican is not addressing at all. And so these are lies of omission, by keeping that out of focus. 

What parts of the world were affected? 

Basically everywhere. I mean, if you look at the patterns of domination all over the planet today, that was the starting point of all of this. And this goes back to the patterns of the Roman Empire and many other empires throughout the planet. So these are imperial patterns. And Pope Alexander VI, in those Vatican papal bulls from 1493, talks about the expansion of the Christian empire or the propagation of the Christian empire … and that was their goal, was to expand the Christian empire. 

All this is very obscure history. If you don't go into the Latin language and understand the Latin version of those papal documents and the Latin version of the Bible, you really won't understand what we're looking at here. 

Can you talk about how it's still affecting those people today? 

Well, every single original nation of this hemisphere is still impacted by state governments, by state systems, that are claiming a right of domination over their lands, over their lives. And so this is the challenge that we face. 

My good friend, Tamara Starblanket from the Cree Nation, has written a book specifically about Canada that's a very important book, Suffer the Little Children: Genocide, Indigenous Nations and the Canadian State, and that's where the focus should be on this idea that ... there has been an intention to destroy in whole or in part entire nations. And that was done by attacking our languages, our cultures, our child-rearing practices, our spiritual and ceremonial traditions, our sacred places. All of these are efforts to take our nations apart at the seams. 

That's the legacy that we're still dealing with today in terms of the efforts to heal. 

What do you think the Pope has to say or do to properly address the Doctrine of Discovery? 

Well, the Doctrine of Domination has to be addressed by openly and explicitly and clearly identifying the exact patterns that were set into motion, and the responsibility that the institution bears for having set that into motion. 

So when you look at the papal bull Dum Diversas from 1452, for example, you have a document that's telling the King of Portugal, King Nicholas V, to go to the western coast of Africa and to invade, capture, vanquish and subdue all Saracens [Muslims], pagans and other enemies of Christ — in other words, non-Christians — reduce their persons to perpetual slavery and take away all their possessions and property. And those patterns were repeated over and over again.

So an open acknowledgement that the church did all this, repeatedly, over nearly a century and set into motion those patterns: that needs to be clearly acknowledged by the church. 

Then we also have to look into the British Crown and the fact that the Crown has made this assertion of Crown sovereignty on the basis of ceremonial acts and rituals whereby they would simply pick up some soil and magically, voila, as if, you know, by holding the soil in their hand and doing this ritual and maybe singing a song or what have you, that suddenly everything belongs to the Crown. That's part of the same pattern that emerges out of the Vatican papal bulls. And that's still being asserted against all of our nations and peoples to this day. 

What about this idea of revoking the doctrine altogether? 

Well, it's the documents that we're talking about revoking. We really haven't talked about revoking the doctrine of discovery. We've talked about the Pope, the papacy, the Holy See, revoking the specific document from May 4, 1493.

My friend Birgil Kills Straight and I — Birgil was an Oglala Lakota headman, a ceremonial man — and he and I began an effort to call upon Pope John Paul II to revoke the papal bull of May 4th, 1493, as representative of all the various papal documents. And we began that work back in 1992. So that's always been our position, that by them revoking the document and in doing that in perhaps some ceremonial way, with the traditional leaders and so forth, that there would be an acknowledgement of the language patterns and the domination patterns that emerged from those documents. 

What would happen if the document was revoked? 

Well, it would undercut the entire premise of any claim of a right of domination against our nations and peoples. And that's what I think people really don't understand. What does it mean to claim a right of domination over others and then use that in a genocidal manner in an effort to destroy languages and spiritual traditions that have been evolved over thousands of years? 

And the … ways in which our nations and peoples understood how to interact with the natural world. Those are the teachings that still have importance for the planet, especially a time of such grave ecological devastation. 

So I think that it would undercut that premise. And then there can be a new way of looking at the relationship between the original nations and peoples of the planet and those people that have come across the ocean and been claiming that right of domination all these generations. 

So that's at least one starting point for that larger conversation. 

What advice do you have for people, survivors and their families who feel like they might still be in limbo, waiting for all the right parties to come forward as they should? 

Well, we have powerful ceremonial traditions. When we get in touch with those ceremonial traditions and come together as communities, as nations and as families, in a strong, loving way, miracles can happen. That is my thought with regard to that. 

The more we get back to our languages and traditions and ceremonial ways of interacting with the natural world, the more healing that is. That's very sound advice that I received from traditional elders when I was in my teenage years. And I had the good fortune of going into ceremony with some very amazing spiritual people from the Cree nation. And that was beneficial in my life all these years later. My whole life I've had those many spiritual experiences through ceremony that have been very healing for me. And I know that that can be so for others. 

I wanted to say one last thing about the theme of reconciliation, that there is something that is problematic about that terminology in terms of reconciling ourselves to the idea that these folks that came here with a claim of a right of domination still have any legitimate or valid authority over our nations and peoples. And so I think that that word and that theme needs to be more critically examined and dealt with in a very comprehensive way. 

With files from Sheena Goodyear