‎500 years ago: Pope gives permission to conquer Indigenous people

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz explains how papal bull edicts from the fifteenth-century gave permission for Europeans to conquer the world's Indigenous peoples.

In May of this year, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visited Pope Francis at the Vatican.  At the heart of his audience with the Pope was a request.  

Trudeau asked Pope Francis to issue a public apology for the Catholic Church's role in establishing and running Residential Schools in Canada. Such an apology is among the 'calls to action' from the Truth And Reconciliation Commission.

But the troubled history of the Catholic Church and indigenous people stretches back centuries.  

These words were written more than 500 years ago … any non-Christian people 'discovered' by European explorers were to be vanquished and subdued. Direct quote: "Subjugated - and brought to the faith."

They are called papal bulls, edicts made by Popes Nicholas V and Alexander VI in the fifteenth-century that instructed how European explorers were to treat Indigenous people.

The Vatican directives became the basis of centuries of discriminatory laws in both Canada and the United States.

Here's an excerpt: "That in our times, especially the Catholic faith and the Christian religion be exalted and be everywhere increased and spread, that the health of souls be cared for, and that barbarous nations be overthrown and brought to the faith itself."

This, according to Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, was clear permission for Europeans to conquer the world's Indigenous people.

"This is the basis for boarding schools, the basis for genocide. They could do anything they wanted with the people because not only did they own the land, but the people, their labour, everything," she says.

Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz is a historian and activist in San Francisco. She has worked with the international indigenous movement for more than 40 years.

She is one of the world's leading authorities on the papal bulls, which are the basis of the Doctrine of Discovery, a historical concept that claimed the right of Europeans to colonize Indigenous people.

She says that both the church and state were colonizers with purely economic interests. The exploration of the "New World" was not a search for Christian converts but a quest for "domination, looting, taking the wealth."

Five hundred years after the original papal decrees, Dunbar-Ortiz says "the moral fabric of the whole society is corrupted."

Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission found that the country's residential school policy could be traced back to these original papal bulls. The Final Report of the Commission quotes political leader and educator Sol Sanderson: "What were the objectives of these empire policies? Assimilation, integration, civilization, Christianization and liquidation. Who did those policies target? They targeted the destruction of our Indigenous families worldwide."

The echoes of those decrees can also be seen in the abuse of Indigenous lands, such as the mercury poisoning of the Wabigoon River and Clay Lake in Grassy Narrows First Nation in Ontario.  Fifty years after the original dumping of mercury by a pulp and paper company, the young people of the community have recorded a song, Home to Me, to bring attention to their challenges and assert their pride.

Author and scholar Blair Stonechild was a residential school student in Saskatchewan in the 1960's. Now a professor of Indigenous Studies at First Nations University of Canada in Regina, he believes that part of the cure for centuries of scarred land and wounded spirits lies in reclaiming Indigenous spirituality. "Bringing back what to me are very natural, sensible concepts of spiritual relationship to the environment, recognizing that everything has a spirit."

Special thanks to Tina Pittaway for producing the interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?