Idle No More: Heathens and Infidels


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In 1823, the U.S. Supreme Court determined that Indian Nations did not have title to their lands because they weren’t Christians. When Chief Justice John Marshall made his ruling, the Doctrine of Christian Discovery was established. With this doctrine came the concept that full ownership of Indian lands belonged to the United States , and tribes had the right of occupancy. This, of course, completely ignored all the treaties that had already been made with North American Natives.

So what does the Doctrine of Christian Discovery mean?

It means that even though North American Natives lived in North America, and even though tribes had their own spirituality, that the status of a “human” was then, and continues now to be, based entirely on whether the person was or is a Christian — regardless of whether the person is a Christian in name only or a practicing Christian.

It means that only Christian governments can transfer land titles to another Christian government.

It means that the doctrine allows Christian governments to subdue, enslave, convert, and eradicate those who are not Christians.

It means that the doctrine can be used to diminish the significance of treaties between indigenous nations and the governments that are considered as representing the country as a whole (ie. Canada, the U.S., New Zealand, Australia).

But surely something that was misused so many years ago is no longer used against First Nations peoples. Think again. In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court used the Doctrine of Christian Discovery to find against the Oneida Nation of Indians.

How is it that Europeans arriving on North American shores asserted that the land belonged to Christians, and not to those who were already raising families here? The problem began in 1452 with the first Papal Bull known as the Law Of Nations that directed Christian countries to “capture, vanquish, and subdue the saracens, pagans, and other enemies of Christ,” to “put them into perpetual slavery,” and “to take all their possessions and property.”

The subsequent Papa bull of 1493 known as the Inter Caetera Bull, stated that the “discovered” people Christopher Columbus found in his travels of 1492 were to be “subjugated and brought to the faith itself.”

What has the Doctrine of Christian Doctrine allowed to happen in the U.S. over the years? Quite a few things, actually, including, but not limited to, the following:

  1. It allowed the government to get around the terms of the lawfully and legally enacted treaties between North American Natives and the U.S. government;
  2. It allowed the government to remove indigenous peoples living east of the Mississippi River them from their traditional ancestral homelands by way of the Indian Removal Act of 1835.
  3. It allowed the government to use the General Allotment Act of 1887 to take ownership of 90 million acres of land that was formerly under indigenous ownership. The Commissioner of Indian Affairs, John Collier stated that this act was “an indirect method — peacefully under the forms of law – of taking away the land that we were determined to take away but did not want to take it openly by breaking the treaties.”
  4. It allowed the government to violation the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie and take possession of the Black Hills. The Treat of Fort Laramie had recognized the Sioux Nation’s exclusive ownership and possession of the land.

But that was generations ago. Surely in the 20th century, nothing like that ever happened! Wrong.

In 1954, when the Tee-Hit-Tons in Alaska fought for compensation for timber taken from their tribal lands by the U.S. government, lawyers for the U.S. government argued that under international law, Christian nations can acquire lands occupied by “heathens and infidels.” In other words, when the U.S. bought Alaska from the Russians, the Tee-Hit-Tons didn’t have a say in what would happen to their land because they were considered “heathens and infidels.” These same lawyers then went on to cite the Papal bulls of the fifteenth century and the Old Testament from the Bible.

The case was dismissed, and the reason for doing so was based on the fact that Congress did not recognize the Tee-Hit-Tons’ legal rights of property ownership.

The attitude that is entrenched in the Doctrine of Christian Discovery exists to this day, and is one of the main reasons that First Nations peoples are discriminated against by governments regardless of the country in which they live. It’s time to realize that Papal Bulls from the 15th century have no place in doing what is right for Indigenous peoples around the world.

Elyse Bruce


6 Responses to “Idle No More: Heathens and Infidels”

  1. mutanatia Says:

    Elyse, thank you for writing this. It is a classic example of when religion becomes too powerful in the course of legal proceedings. The Supreme Court, it seems, should do well to remember the “separation of church and state.” There are points where the two can coexist; however, in this instance, for a detached, unbiased judgment on the law, they should remain separate.

  2. Idle No More: Keep The Redskins Name, Change The Logo | Elyse Bruce Says:

    […] before it was part of football culture, it was part of another American sport:  killing North American Indians for […]

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