Resources on the Doctrine of Discovery and U.S. History

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compiled by Elder Activists for Social Justice, Conscious Elders Network

Indigenous/Native peoples have suffered from systemic racism, oppression, and genocide on the North American continent since the 15th century’s “Doctrine of Discovery,” which is still enshrined in U.S. law today.  

This international legal principle, arising from as early as the Middle Ages in European Christendom, justified the subjugation of non-Christian nations and peoples and “the propagation of the Christian empire” (Pope Alexander VI, 15th century) throughout the world.  Retroactively labeled the “Doctrine of Discovery”, this “doctrine” came to be codified as law through several Papal Bulls, particularly the Papal Bull Romanus Pontifex of 1454 and the Papal Bull Inter Caetera of 1493 (right after Columbus “discovered America”), the latter bull dividing parts of the New World between Spain and Portugal and advancing the already approved slave-trade.  

Over the past 500 years the Doctrine of Discovery has established patterns of domination and dehumanization that have become institutionalized in language, thought, and behavior in our cultural and legal systems. The transference of this “doctrine” into the U.S. judicial system occurred in 1823 (Johnson & Graham’s Lessee v. M’intosh & Wheat) and this legal principle continues into the 21st century; it was invoked against Indigenous Peoples’ land rights in a 2005 Supreme Court case.

The Elder Activists for Social Justice team in the Conscious Elders Network compiled this list of resources to help people with settler ancestry educate themselves about this tragic legacy of our nation’s history that lives on today.  As a member of that team, I want to share it with the Work That Reconnects community. ~ Molly Brown

Introductory Documents and Videos on the Doctrine of Discovery

Clear and simple factsheet on the Doctrine of Discovery, 2015   

Oren Lyons on Doctrine of Discovery (6 minutes) 2015
Oren Lyons is a Native American Faithkeeper of the Turtle Clan of the Seneca Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy.  This short film is part of 8 short, testimonial films, on the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois.) The Iroquois are embarking on an historic project about the 500-year history of the Iroquois, their relationship with Europe and America and their prophesies that, if heard, can help us navigate the oncoming changes due to climate change. This series of short films is done via their testimony, and creates the space for the Iroquois to tell their story as they strive to uphold the traditions and the legacy of their people while also protecting the central tenets of their people and their relationship and care for the Earth.

Mark Charles –What is the Doctrine of Discovery? (7 minutes) 2016  
Mark Charles is the son of an American woman of Dutch heritage and a Navajo man. He has lived with his wife and children on the Navajo reservation for 11 years, and now they are in Washington, DC. His objective is to help forge a path of healing and reconciliation for the nation through understanding and teaching on the complexities of American history regarding race, culture, and faith. He is a speaker and a writer on these topics, most notably on the Doctrine of Discovery. He also serves as the Washington correspondent for Native News Online.  Video describes the Papal Bulls of the 14th Century known as the Doctrine of Discovery and their influence on the foundations of the United States of America.

Winona Laduke -The Language of Empire  (5 minutes) 2010  
Winona LaDuke (born August 18, 1959) is an American environmentalist, economist, and writer, known for her work on tribal land claims and preservation, as well as sustainable development. In 1996 and 2000, she ran for Vice President as the nominee of the Green Party of the United States, on a ticket headed by Ralph Nader. In the 2016 presidential election, she became the first Native American woman to receive an electoral vote for Vice President of the United States.  She is the executive director of Honor the Earth, which played an active role in the Dakota Access Pipeline protests.

ENOUGHNESS: Restoring Balance to the Economy in the Most Awesome Way Ever (5 Minutes) 2013
How we see the world determines how we act. Western thought sees us at war with each other over resources. In Indigenous philosophy, we are all related as individuals in balance with nature. Enoughness juxtaposes these two world views and delivers some startling facts.

April 2010. Concise four page report by the UN special reporter
Says the UN Declaration on the Rights of the Indigenous does not go far enough and that the Doctrine of Discovery is the foundational beginning of treating Indigenous as less than human.

Paula Palmer – Healing Our Nation’s Oldest Wounds
Paula Palmer is clerk of the Indigenous Peoples Concerns Committee of Boulder Monthly Meeting, CO (IMYM), and director of the Meeting’s Roots of Injustice, Seeds of Change: Toward Right Relationship with America’s Native Peoples Project. ( About the workshop, Paula writes: “In the Doctrine of Discovery, we find the roots of injustice. In the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, we find the seeds of change. In this workshop, we ask, ‘How can we – as individuals and as a religious society – nurture these seeds of change to bring forth the fruits of right relationship among all peoples?’”
“Healing Our Nation’s Oldest Wounds,” by Paula Palmer, Western Friend, Jan./Feb. 2014

For Further Study:  Documents and Videos on the Doctrine of Discovery

Dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery- Robust timeline of Doctrine of Discovery’s historical influence across the world, 2015

 NPR News -Native American Boarding Schools 101 (7 minutes video) 2012
History of US Indian Boarding Schools, interviews up to today

United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples
September 2007

Articles on current connections:

Mark Charles article with timeline of Doctrine of Discovery, up to today, and his efforts for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission

Steve Newcomb uses Christian Doctrine of Discovery to point out the origins of the US Supreme Court. A good in-depth article.

Kiana Herold: Terra Nullius and the History of Broken Treaties at Standing Rock, November 14, 2016, Intercontinental Cry

Tim Scott: The Dakota Access Pipeline and the Doctrine of Native Genocide
Truthout | News Analysis Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Web resources and Activism:

Indigenous Environmental Network- is an alliance of grassroots Indigenous Peoples whose mission is to protect the sacredness of Mother Earth from contamination and exploitation by strengthening, respecting, and maintaining traditional teachings and natural laws.

Indian People Organizing for Change – Our inherent responsibility to do what is right on behalf of our ancestors and those to come.  Co-founder Corrina Gould is currently working on trying to protect the West Berkeley Shellmound in Berkeley, the oldest of the Shellmounds (~5700 years old). Facebook page: “West Berkeley Shellmound”

Indian Country Today Media Network. Current news in Indigenous communities primarily located within the U.S.

Indigenous Law Institute.  The Indigenous Law Institute assists American Indian and other Indigenous communities to work toward a future of restoration and healing. They do this by working to develop a radically new basis for thinking about Native rights, from a Traditional Native Law perspective, and by contending that Native nations and peoples have an inherent right to live free of all forms of empire and domination.

Ally Bill of Responsibilities created by Dr. Lynn Gehl, PhD.,
Gii-Zhigaate-Mnidoo-Kwe, Algonquin Anishinaabe, MekinaNdoodem

The National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition (NABS) is a non-profit corporation, incorporated in June 2012 under the laws of the Navajo Nation.  The Coalition was formed to discuss and develop a national strategy to focus public attention and foster healing for the wrongs visited upon individuals, families, communities, American Indian and Alaska Native Tribal Nations by the Indian Boarding School policy of the United States.

Documentary Videos and Films,

Indian Boarding School Plans (10 minutes)

Steven Newcomb on Christian Doctrine of Discovery   7 MINUTES PART 1     5 MINUTES PART 2

Oren Lyons  –Indigenous Reflections on Christianity  (13 minutes )
Excellent outline of colonialism by Indigenous speakers  connection to domination of nature and destruction of earth.

Winona LaDuke (Anishinaabe activist) speaks on the process of apology, redemption and healing; through the story of the Pawnee tribe and the return home to their native land in Nebraska. (13 minutes)

Walter Echo Hawk Presentation – International Seminar on the Doctrine of Discovery (1 hour) September 20-21, 2012.  Presentation topic: Johnson v. M’Intosh & the Doctrine of Discovery in the United States – Impacts upon Federal Indian Law; and the Future of the Doctrine under the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples    Co-hosted by: Shuswap Nation Tribal Council and Thompson Rivers University.

The Doctrine of Discovery: In the Name of Christ (43 minute film) 2015 Mennonite and Cheyenne.  This documentary has three parts: 1) History of the Doctrine of Discovery and its basis in Christian theology and scripture. 2) Living the Doctrine of Discovery (starting at 20:21) 3)Undoing the Doctrine of Discovery (starting at 29:50)

The Plight of Indians in America– Red Cry Film- Pine Ridge- Lakota   (1.5 hours film)
The tragic effects of treaties broken by the U.S. government: reservations steeped in poverty, unemployment and crime:


An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, 2014
Told from the perspective of Indigenous peoples, this classic bottom-up people’s history reveals how Native Americans, for centuries, actively resisted expansion of the American empire. It radically reframes US history and explodes the silences  that have haunted our national narrative.  Highly recommended!

All the Real Indians Died Off and 20 other myths about Native Americans, by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz and Dina Gilio-Whitaker, 2016.
In this enlightening book, the authors tackle a wide range of myths about  Native American culture and history that have misinformed generations.  Each chapter shows how these myths are rooted in the fears and prejudice of European settlers and in the larger political agendas of the settler state.

Pagans in the Promised Land by Steve Newcomb
An important text that gives an overarching history of the doctrine and its religious underpinnings.

The Indian Frontier of the American West 1846-1890 by Robert M. Utley
An important text that gives an overarching history of the doctrine and its religious underpinnings.

In the Light of Justice, by Walter Echo-Hawk
In 2007 the United Nations approved the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. United States endorsement in 2010 ushered in a new era of Indian law and policy. This book highlights steps that the United States, as well as other nations, must take to provide a more just society and heal past injustices committed against indigenous peoples.

Not From Here A Memoir, by Allan G. Johnson, 2015
Throughout this book the author raises questions – what does it mean to be white? what does it mean to be American? what does it mean to be from a place and belong to it?

Native America, Discovered and Conquered, Thomas Jefferson, Lewis and Clark and Manifest Destiny, by Robert J. Miller, Esq., 2008.

Buying America from the Indians: Johnson v. McIntosh and the History of Native Land Rights, by Blake Watson, 2012.

The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America, by Andrés Reséndez

An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe, 1846–1873, by Benjamin Madley

A Cross of Thorns: The Enslavement of California’s Indians by the Spanish Missions, by Elias Castillo.



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