Tapestry

Indigenous activist urges the Vatican to revoke 500-year-old documents

Author Steven Newcomb says 15th century papal bulls calling for the conquest of Indigenous peoples have influenced everything from how we treat the planet to the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women.

These papal bulls granted Christians “right of domination” over Indigenous peoples, says Steven Newcomb

Steven Newcomb in Kumeyaay Nation Territory. (William "Pila" Laronal)
Listen11:01

Steven Newcomb has spent years teaching people about a series of 15th century papal bulls, commonly called the 'doctrine of discovery.' 

(Fulcrum Publishing)

Newcomb, who is Shawnee/Lenape and author of Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery, said the bulls might be old, but they've influenced everything from how we treat the planet to the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women. 

He described the doctrine as the idea that the first Christians to locate land inhabited by Indigenous peoples had a "right of domination" over those lands and peoples.

"We got in the habit of calling it the 'doctrine of discovery,' but what I've learned from studying those documents … is that it's really the doctrine of domination," he said. 

'Words constitute reality'

That emphasis on domination is important, said Newcomb.  

When you look at the residential schools and the boarding schools in the United States, these are a direct consequence of the idea that there was a right of domination over our nations and peoples.- Steven Newcomb , author

"Words constitute reality," he said. "It's not just that we use words to describe reality. We're creating reality on an on-going basis. And when we understand that, if we're using terms of domination and dehumanization, then we're constructing that type of reality."

Newcomb said the doctrine of discovery became enshrined in the laws of countries like Canada, the U.S. and Australia. It also shaped how those governments treated — and continue to treat — Indigenous peoples.

Steven Newcomb at the Archivo General de Indias in Seville, Spain. (Debra Harry)

"So when you look at the residential schools and the boarding schools in the United States, these are a direct consequence of the idea that there was a right of domination over our nations and peoples," he said. 

Since the 1990s, Newcomb has joined forces with other Indigenous peoples to call upon the Catholic Church to revoke the bulls. 

So far, this work has taken him to Seville, Spain, where he saw the original bulls, and the Vatican, where he met Pope Francis and asked him to revoke the papal bulls.

Church has yet to acknowledge its impact

But Newcomb says the Catholic Church still hasn't publicly acknowledged the damage unleashed by the doctrine of discovery.
In 2016, Steven Newcomb met Vatican officials, including Pope Francis, and called on them to revoke a series of 15th century papal bulls. (Max Rossi/Reuters)

"And so people don't know the truth," he said. 

That's where Newcomb's work comes in, which he said is part of a "healing process" impacting every living thing.  

"As we said in our letter to Pope John Paul II way back in 1993, 'We invite you to walk with us on the sacred path, in honour of our mother, the earth, and to have a sacred regard for all living things,'" said Newcomb. 

"It's in that spirit that I keep moving forward."

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