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Beyond the Doctrine of Discovery

By Paul Chaffee


The Doctrine of Discovery which emerged from the Papal Bulls of 1452-1493 may be the most destructive ‘doctrine’ ever promoted by a religious institution, though few know about it today. For much of the 15th century the pope was the most powerful man in Europe, and these papal documents “provided legal sanction and promoted Christian conquest, colonization, and exploitation of non-Christian territories and peoples the world over,” as a report in this issue of TIO puts it. The Doctrine of Discovery became so institutionalized in Western law that cases in the U.S. as recently as 2005 have relied on rights ‘justified’ by the Doctrine. For more than 500 years, millions of native peoples have been oppressed, enslaved, and converted or killed by Christians who thought God was on their side.

Sadly enough, Christian explorers were not the only ones who have bullied indigenous peoples. Established, organized religious traditions, typically with superior arms, have oppressed and destroyed indigenous traditions around the world. It continues to this day. As Gus diZerega’s provocative “What is Indigeneity?” explains in this issue, the word means many things. Today, religious indigeneity can include Earth-based, Nature-based, Native, and Neopagan spiritual traditions. They can be found, often hidden minorities, in most countries.

The interfaith movement has been a platform for bridge-building between indigenous traditions and Abrahamic traditions, an astonishing challenge considering the historical context. Two Wiccans, Don Frew and Rachael Watcher, both well represented in this issue, have been leaders in taking advantage of this opportunity. As Pagans themselves, representing a long-suffering collection of religious minorities, they have a credibility with American Indians and indigenous people everywhere. Having been bullied is not the only thing they share, though.

Indigenous people everywhere are tuned to the presence of the Divine within each one of us and within a living Universe, in nature, and everything it contains. They don’t relate to a God out there, to divinity separate from the Creation in all its detailed magnificence.

This enhanced sense of the sacred may be the most important contribution indigenous traditions have in a world that has been violated and abused, where nature is being reduced to producing wealth, and where billions of people feel violated and disrespected.

An indigenous sense of the sacred woven into our personal and corporate lives is as magnificent and hopeful a vision as the Doctrine of Discovery is onerous and in need of papal denunciation. The quest ahead is about justice, but more than that, about resacralizing the Earth and learning to treat every human being with care and respect. We face a slow, painful learning curve, but the vision will endure. It is life-affirming and will prevail.