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The Doctrine of Discovery

By Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz

August 9 is International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. The United Nations selected this date to recognize the accolades and contributions of the world’s indigenous peoples as well as to promote and protect their rights. In time for the paperback release of Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s American Book Award-winning An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, we're sharing the following passage from her book to commemorate the occasion. In this passage, Dunbar-Ortiz gives the history of the day’s creation and the role our very own UUA played in repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery. 


Logo of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous IssuesIn 1982, the government of Spain and the Holy See (the Vatican, which is a nonvoting state member of the United Nations) proposed to the UN General Assembly that the year 1992 be celebrated in the United Nations as an “encounter” between Europe and the peoples of the Americas, with Europeans bearing the gifts of civilization and Christianity to the Indigenous peoples. To the shock of the North Atlantic states that supported Spain’s resolution (including the United States and Canada), the entire African delegation walked out of the meeting and returned with an impassioned statement condemning a proposal to celebrate colonialism in the United Nations, which was established for the purpose of ending colonialism.

The “Doctrine of Discovery” had reared its head in the wrong place. The resolution was dead, but it was not the end of efforts by Spain, the Vatican, and others in the West to make the Quincentennial a cause for celebration.

Only five years before the debacle in the UN General Assembly, the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas conference at the UN’s Geneva headquarters had proposed that 1992 be made the UN “year of mourning” for the onset of colonialism, African slavery, and genocide against the Indigenous peoples of the Americas, and that October 12 be designated as the UN International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. As the time drew near to the Quincentennial, Spain took the lead in fighting the Indigenous proposals. Spain and the Vatican also spent years and huge sums of money preparing for their own celebration of Columbus, enlisting the help of all of the countries of Latin America except Cuba, which refused (and paid for this in withdrawn Spanish financial investments). In the United States, the George H. W. Bush administration cooperated with the project and produced its own series of events. In the end, compromise won at the United Nations: Indigenous peoples garnered a Decade for the World’s Indigenous Peoples, which officially began in 1994 but was inaugurated at UN headquarters in New York in December 1992. August 9, not October 12, was designated as the annual UN International Day for the World’s Indigenous Peoples, and the Nobel Peace Prize went to Guatemalan Mayan leader Rigoberta Menchú, announced in Oslo on October 12, 1992, a decision that infuriated the Spanish government and the Vatican. The organized celebrations of Columbus flopped, thanks to multiple, highly visible protests by Indigenous peoples and their allies. Particularly, support grew for the work of Indigenous peoples at the United Nations to develop new international law standards.

According to the centuries-old Doctrine of Discovery, European nations acquired title to the lands they “discovered,” and Indigenous inhabitants lost their natural right to that land after Europeans had arrived and claimed it. Under this legal cover for theft, Euro-American wars of conquest and settler colonialism devastated Indigenous nations and communities, ripping their territories away from them and transforming the land into private property, real estate. Most of that land ended up in the hands of land speculators and agribusiness operators, many of which, up to the mid-nineteenth century, were plantations worked by another form of private property, enslaved Africans. Arcane as it may seem, the doctrine remains the basis for federal laws still in effect that control Indigenous peoples’ lives and destinies, even their histories by distorting them.


From the mid-fifteenth century to the mid-twentieth century, most of the non-European world was colonized under the Doctrine of Discovery, one of the first principles of international law Christian European monarchies promulgated to legitimize investigating, mapping, and claiming lands belonging to peoples outside Europe. It originated in a papal bull issued in 1455 that permitted the Portuguese monarchy to seize West Africa. Following Columbus’s infamous exploratory voyage in 1492, sponsored by the king and queen of the infant Spanish state, another papal bull extended similar permission to Spain. Disputes between the Portuguese and Spanish monarchies led to the papal-initiated Treaty of Tordesillas (1494), which, besides dividing the globe equally between the two Iberian empires, clarified that only non-Christian lands fell under the discovery doctrine. This doctrine on which all European states relied thus originated with the arbitrary and unilateral establishment of the Iberian monarchies’ exclusive rights under Christian canon law to colonize foreign peoples, and this right was later seized by other European monarchical colonizing projects. The French Republic used this legalistic instrument for its nineteenth- and twentieth-century settler colonialist projects, as did the newly independent United States when it continued the colonization of North America begun by the British.

In 1792, not long after the US founding, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson claimed that the Doctrine of Discovery developed by European states was international law applicable to the new US government as well. In 1823 the US Supreme Court issued its decision in Johnson v. McIntosh. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Marshall held that the Doctrine of Discovery had been an established principle of European law and of English law in effect in Britain’s North American colonies and was also the law of the United States. The Court defined the exclusive property rights that a European country acquired by dint of discovery: “Discovery gave title to the government, by whose subjects, or by whose authority, it was made, against all other European governments, which title might be consummated by possession.” Therefore, European and Euro-American “discoverers” had gained real-property rights in the lands of Indigenous peoples by merely planting a flag. Indigenous rights were, in the Court’s words, “in no instance, entirely disregarded; but were necessarily, to a considerable extent, impaired.” The Court further held that Indigenous “rights to complete sovereignty, as independent nations, were necessarily diminished.” Indigenous people could continue to live on the land, but title resided with the discovering power, the United States. A later decision concluded that Native nations were “domestic, dependent nations.”

The Doctrine of Discovery is so taken for granted that it is rarely mentioned in historical or legal texts published in the Americas. The UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Peoples, which meets annually for two weeks, devoted its entire 2012 session to the doctrine. Three decades earlier, as Indigenous peoples of the Americas began asserting their presence in the UN human rights system, they had proposed such a conference and study. The World Council of Churches, the Unitarian Universalist Church, the Episcopal Church, and other Protestant religious institutions, responding to demands from Indigenous peoples, have made statements disassociating themselves from the Doctrine of Discovery. The New York Society of Friends (Quakers), in denying the legitimacy of the doctrine, asserted in 2012 that it clearly “still has the force of law today” and is not simply a medieval relic. The Quakers pointed out that the United States rationalizes its claims to sovereignty over Native nations, for instance in the 2005 US Supreme Court case, City of Sherrill v. Oneida Nation of Indians. The statement asserts: “We cannot accept that the Doctrine of Discovery was ever a true authority for the forced takings of lands and the enslavement or extermination of peoples.” The Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) resolution regarding this is particularly powerful and an excellent model. The UUA “repudiate(s) the Doctrine of Discovery as a relic of colonialism, feudalism, and religious, cultural, and racial biases having no place in the modern day treatment of indigenous peoples.” The Unitarians resolved to “expose the historical reality and impact of the Doctrine of Discovery and eliminate its presence in the contemporary policies, programs, theologies, and structures of Unitarian Universalism; and . . . invite indigenous partners to a process of Honor and Healing (often called Truth and Reconciliation).” They additionally encouraged “other religious bodies to reject the use of the Doctrine of Discovery to dominate indigenous peoples” and resolved to collaborate with groups “to propose a specific Congressional Resolution to repudiate this doctrine . . . and call upon the United States to fully implement the standards of the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in the U.S. law and policy without qualifications.”


About the Author

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz grew up in rural Oklahoma, the daughter of a tenant farmer and part-Indian mother. She has been active in the international Indigenous movement for more than four decades and is known for her lifelong commitment to national and international social justice issues. After receiving her PhD in history at the University of California at Los Angeles, she taught in the newly established Native American Studies Program at California State University, Hayward, and helped found the Departments of Ethnic Studies and Women’s Studies. Her 1977 book The Great Sioux Nation was the fundamental document at the first international conference on Indigenous peoples of the Americas, held at the United Nations’ headquarters in Geneva. Dunbar-Ortiz is the author or editor of seven other books, including Roots of Resistance: A History of Land Tenure in New Mexico. She lives in San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter at @rdunbaro.