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Drawing a Straight Line from Columbus to Standing Rock

By Gail Forsyth-Vail

No DAPLOn November 3, 2016, more than 500 clergy from many faith traditions gathered at Standing Rock in support of the Sioux Nation’s protest of the Dakota Access Pipeline. As part of the day of witness, Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) President Rev. Peter Morales was one of seven denominational leaders who read statements repudiating the 1493 Doctrine of Discovery, a papal bull which offered the rationale for the colonization of the Americas and other countries by European Christian powers. By virtue of the Doctrine, Christians were given the legal right to take, colonize, settle, and extract resources from land belonging to those who were not Christian. The statement Morales read, adopted by the UUA General Assembly, called for Unitarian Universalists to learn about the doctrine and its ongoing impacts, not only on indigenous peoples, but on the political, legal, economic, and cultural systems in the United States, in local communities, and in our congregations.

In 2011, I was tasked with curating and creating study materials for congregations so that delegates might better understand why they were being asked to repudiate a 500-year-old document. Delegates were asking, “What possible relevance could the Doctrine of Discovery have to justice work today?” As I prepared materials, I read the work of a number of indigenous legal scholars, historians, and theologians. The more I learned, the more I discovered just how much the Doctrine—and the assumptions that flowed from it—have shaped the dominant story we tell about our nation. Its impacts are far-reaching and ongoing. I looked for resources to help explain this to a general audience, rather than a scholarly one.

In 2015, Beacon Press published An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States by historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz. Here it was: a unified telling of the story of indigenous peoples in the United States that drew a straight line from the first US Congress’ eager claim to the Discovery rights of European monarchs to the struggles for indigenous sovereignty and rights and environmental justice today.  I eagerly devoured the entire book on a long train ride. By centering the experiences of indigenous peoples in the US, it offers exactly the kind of resource that helps Unitarian Universalists and others understand what’s at stake in our nation, and how the witness and struggle of the water protectors at Standing Rock fits into a larger picture. The UUA offers an on-line discussion guide for the book.

Dunbar-Ortiz_Gilio-WhitakerRecently, Dunbar-Ortiz teamed with journalist and researcher Dina Gilio-Whitaker to write another book, “All the Real Indians Died Off” and 20 Other Myths about Native Americans. This book is about indigenous nations and peoples in the United States today, and is useful for teachers, teens, parents, religious professionals, and justice activists. In short, pithy chapters, it takes on one by one the myths that are part of the current mainstream discourse about Native Americans. It begins with an affirmation of the strength and resiliency of indigenous people. It explains basic questions, such as sovereignty and treaty rights, using just enough history to provide context. It addresses current questions: sports mascots, casinos, and cultural appropriation. It addresses the historical and cultural problem with the common narratives about Columbus and Thanksgiving. Most of all, it challenges readers to examine destructive stereotypes, to rethink what they’ve been taught about Native Americans and history, and to engage more fully in local and national support of the work of naming, addressing, and undoing the ongoing effects of the Doctrine of Discovery. It is critical work that Unitarian Universalists and other people of conscience, secular and religious, are called to do now.


About the Author

image from www.beaconbroadside.comGail Forsyth-Vail is Adult Programs Director in the Faith Development Office at the Unitarian Universalist Association.