The Doctrine of Discovery

The “Doctrine of Discovery” , discussed at this Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues at the U.N.,  is a conceptual framework for what indigenous peoples have experienced and continue to experience over the past 600 years.    The Doctrine of Discovery, they articulate, started in the 1400s when the Pope at that time determined that those who were exploring new lands were to seize, conquer and subdue the peoples of the territories they “discovered” for the sake of resource extraction.    This pattern of conquest was the ‘rule’ of the day.   It was what people of the conquering nations considered to be right and just.   Christianity was used as the justification for why this kind of subduing (and even annihilation) was necessary.   According to the Doctrine, people in these lands, because they were not Christian, were not “morally capable” of  voice or rights.   Of course, there were debates and people who began to live with the peoples realized the depth of their understanding of the world but those who “discovered” those lands figured out ways of making rules so that those of the conquering nations obtained the lands and kept them.  These rules and laws are called the “Doctrine of Discovery”.  Some Indigenous Peoples at the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in New York would like to call it the “Doctrine of Discovery and Domination”.


In the U.S., before the U.S. was the U.S., the “Doctrine of Discovery” was key as to whether a territory “discovered” was to be English, French, Spanish, Dutch. Those countries often fought one another, divided territories and combined territories and based upon this Doctrine, determined who had the “legal” right to rule, obtain resources and taxes, and even purchase the land from those living there for 1000s of years.     Imagine what it really was to be a person who had roamed their lands for generation after generation, to have this intrusion of such hustle and bustle of a new economic, political, lingual, territorial ethic and laws which you had no voice in making.

In the current day food, oil, gold, silver, mineral, gas,  palm oil, etc. etc. corporations are working in tandem with governments and  National and International Finance Institutions to “discover” “new lands” for the sake of our energy, mineral, food and resource consumption.   This “discovery” is a new mode of the Doctrine in which people who have lived for hundreds of years on a piece of land are often not consulted, or minimally consulted as huge resource extraction industry infiltrates the life of the community, often with environmentally, socially and politically toxic effects.    And?   This is legal.


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