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Congregations encouraged to study Doctrine of Discovery

Fellowship in Bellingham, Wash., has been longstanding supporter of indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest.
By Donald E. Skinner
3.26.12

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Many people didn’t learn about the Doctrine of Discovery in school. But those who attend General Assembly in June will learn about it there.

In brief, the Doctrine of Discovery is the premise that European Christian explorers who “discovered” other lands had the authority to claim those lands and subdue, even enslave, peoples of those lands simply because they were not Christian.

That belief led to Christopher Columbus and other explorers claiming large parts of what is now known as the Americas and other lands for various Christian monarchs, and to the subsequent widespread genocide of indigenous peoples over the centuries that followed. The doctrine dates to the beginning of the Crusades in the eleventh century.

Part of the GA opening worship on Wednesday, June 20, in Phoenix, and two “education and preparation” sessions later in GA will focus on the Doctrine of Discovery. GA delegates will be invited to vote to repudiate the doctrine. General Assembly is the annual five-day gathering of Unitarian Universalists to conduct the business of the Unitarian Universalist Association. This General Assembly is being called a “Justice GA” because it is focusing on immigration and related issues.

If delegates to GA do vote to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery, the UUA will become the second mainline denomination—the Episcopalians were first, in 2009—to do that. The doctrine is on the agenda at this GA because two representatives of groups the UUA is working with in Arizona, including immigration rights and indigenous groups, have said that understanding the doctrine is necessary to truly understand the issue of migration.

Those representatives are Steven Newcomb, co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute and author of Pagans in a Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery, and Tupac Enrique Acosta, a leader of Nahuacalli, an organization that describes itself as “A Cultural Embassy of Indigenous Peoples.”

They are asking that the General Assembly pass a resolution that repudiates the Doctrine of Discovery and that asks the Obama administration to fully implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which the UN adopted in 2007. The administration endorsed the declaration in December 2010 without taking steps to implement it.

Congregational leaders attending GA will also be asked to take what they learn about the doctrine home with them. The hope is that they will engage their congregations in a study of this issue and begin to make connections with indigenous peoples in their states and communities.

Speaking at GA on the doctrine will be Newcomb, whose ancestry is Shawnee and Lenape; and Robert Miller (Eastern Shawnee), professor at Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland, Ore., and the author of Native America, Discovered and Conquered: Thomas Jefferson, Lewis and Clark, and Manifest Destiny.


Beth Brownfield, a member of the Bellingham (Wash.) Unitarian Fellowship, is excited that the Doctrine of Discovery will be in front of delegates this year. Since the 1970s, she has supported various Native American groups and causes, including working at three UU Service Committee work camps in the Dakotas and raising $5,000 through First Universalist Church of Minneapolis for culturally specific books for The SuAnne Big Crow Boys and Girls Club on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

The Bellingham congregation has been especially active in learning about and supporting indigenous issues and causes. In 2007 the fellowship spearheaded the first official public recognition of Coast Salish peoples of the Pacific Northwest as the first inhabitants of the region with a proclamation signed by all the mayors in the county and the county executive. The event was held in a city park and attended by city, county, and state officials.

The fellowship has also participated in the “Return to the Earth” program, learning about the more than two million indigenous ancestral remains that are held in museums and private collections nationwide. Many members of the congregation took an eight-hour class and then built 15 burial boxes and sewed burial cloths for some of the remains, which were to be interred at the Cheyenne Cultural Center in Clinton, Okla. They initiated a UU Service Committee JustWorks project there in 2007 to work on the grounds and buildings for this purpose. Three members of the fellowship attended, as well as other UUs from around the country.

Members of the fellowship helped generate countywide support in terms of donations of money, goods, services, and volunteers for the Lummi Nation when it hosted a six-day Tribal Canoe Journey gathering in 2007, an event that drew sixty thousand people.

Indigenous speakers are invited regularly to speak at the fellowship’s Sunday Forum and at services. Several special collections every year go to indigenous organizations or causes. “There are so many opportunities to work in partnership with either local tribes or urban Native American groups almost everywhere,” said Brownfield. “Just the simple act of educating ourselves about U.S. and indigenous history is very important.”

Brownfield noted that while the Doctrine of Discovery itself is relatively ancient, its tenets are so deeply embedded in U.S. law that it continues to oppress indigenous peoples worldwide. “Slavery came out of the Doctrine, and giving nation-states dominion over not only people but lands and resources has also led to the current disregard of the environment in the extraction of natural resources, and an equal disregard for the lives of people who live in these areas.”

The UUA Board of Trustees resolution that GA delegates will be asked to approve in June notes that the Doctrine of Discovery is directly related to laws restricting migration of indigenous peoples. The Doctrine has also been cited as recently as 2005 in Supreme Court decisions, and lies at the root of the violations of indigenous peoples’ human rights, both individually and collectively, says Brownfield.

Gail Forsyth-Vail, UUA Adult Programs director, compiled materials for a Doctrine of Discovery discussion guide for congregations to use in learning about this issue.


The Rev. Colin Bossen, minister of the UU Society of Cleveland, Ohio, learned about the Doctrine of Discovery in July 2010 in the Maricopa County Jail. He was held there briefly, along with more than 25 other UUs and additional immigrant rights advocates, after being arrested for protesting Arizona’s anti-immigrant law, SB 1070.

In jail he met fellow arrestee Acosta, the Nahuacalli leader. Bossen recently wrote an essay on the website of the Divinity School of the University of Chicago about his experience. He wrote: “As we sat together in jail Tupac traced the history of the Christian Doctrine of Discovery from its origin to its often unacknowledged presence in contemporary debates about immigration. [In Tupac’s view] the framework created to facilitate the seizure of indigenous lands continues to form the core of much of federal property law today. [He] had an analysis of the bill's place in history that put it firmly within the context of the ongoing repression of the indigenous peoples of North America.”

Acosta will speak at GA. And Bossen will be on a panel at GA about “Taking the Doctrine of Discovery Home.”

Newcomb will address General Assembly on opening night. He refers to the doctrine as the Doctrine of Christian Discovery and Domination. He said he finds little awareness of the doctrine among indigenous and nonindigenous people alike.

“We’re in the infancy of this movement. We need to dialogue so that we can develop ways that congregations can begin to support indigenous nations and peoples,” said Newcomb, adding that he is not looking for apologies for past wrongs. “I’m not interested in apologies. I’m interested in correcting the wrongs, which are persistent and ongoing. It has been my view that churches ought to be putting as much time, effort, energy, and money into supporting the revitalization of indigenous languages, cultures, and spiritual traditions as they put into attempting to destroy those same things.”

Newcomb recommends that each Unitarian Universalist congregation first identify which indigenous nation’s territory it is on and then begin working to honor and respect that nation. Congregations can also refuse to do business with corporations that damage indigenous peoples and their lands and they can speak out against human rights violations, he said.


See sidebar for links to related resources.

Photo above: Members of the Bellingham, Wash., Unitarian Fellowship have for several years aided the Coast Salish peoples of the Pacific Northwest, shown here celebrating Coast Salish Day in 2008 (Beth Brownfield). An earlier version of this story misidentified the event shown.

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