Steven Newcomb: Disestablishing the doctrine of domination

Steven Newcomb. Photo from Finding the Missing Link

Steven Newcomb of the Indigenous Law Institute discusses how the Doctrine of Christian Discovery continues to influence federal Indian law and policy:
In May 2013, Debra Harry (Paiute), Sharon Venne (Cree) and I saw two of the original papal bull documents at the General Archives of the Indies. It was May 4, five hundred and twenty years from the day that one of the papal documents had been issued in 1493. On the back of one of the two velum parchment documents, the Royal Secretary’s notation says that the documents were a concession from Pope Alexander VI to the Crown of Castile “to win and to conquer the Indies,” (“ganaran y conquistaron de las Indias”).

In other words, they were papal concessions authorizing the crown to force "the Indies" under Christian domination. The papal documents expressed an assumed right of Christian, Catholic, and Spanish dominium or “dominorum Christianorum” (Eximae Devotinis, May 3, 1493). That assumption of Christian domination raises the question as to whether the Indian nations were considered, by Christian thinkers, to have sovereignty and dominium, or dominion, on the same level, and to the same degree, as the Catholic Church and the Spanish crown.

Professor Anthony Anghie in his book Imperialism, Sovereignty, and the Making of International Law (2004) says that Spanish theologian Francisco de Vitoria argued that “the Indians were not sovereign because they were pagans.” It was Vitoria’s view that the Indians were not sovereign because they were not Christians. Wilkins says that Vitoria “declared that Native peoples were the true owners of their lands,” and that Vitoria was of the opinion that a Spanish claim of a “title through discovery could only be justified where property was ownerless.” So, we’re dealing with at least two issues: 1) whether, in Vitoria’s view, the Indians were sovereign, and, 2) whether a “title through discovery” applied in a place where non-Christian Indians nations and peoples were already living.

Get the Story:
Steven Newcomb: Toward Disestablishing the Doctrine of Christian Domination (Indian Country Today 11/20)

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