We can’t quite concur that what’s past is past with Columbus and the Doctrine of Discovery. That’s because the Doctrine of Discovery has been articulated and used in US courts and become part of a body of federal Indian law and that has been used to deny tribal sovereignty and land rights for almost two hundred years and continues to be used in case law. It has also been a key tenet in statutes that infringe upon the freedoms, rights and thriving of African Americans.
In 1823, US Supreme Court chief justice John Marshall used it to argue “that ‘superior genius of Europe’ claimed an ascendancy over the Indigenous peoples and that the bestowal of civilization and Christianity was ample compensation to the inhabitants (Dunbar-Ortiz 29).” He also argued that “discovery” of a land equaled conquest and the Doctrine “becomes the law of the land, and cannot be questioned (46).”
Later, beginning in 1887, the Doctrine was used in the Dawes Act, the General Allotment Act in effect until 1934 which divided treaty lands into privately held lots meant to undermine tribal communal life. This was also “a massive land grab by the United States, with a loss of two-thirds of Indian treaty lands by an act of legislation (55).”
Lastly, as recently as 2005, the US Supreme Court has cited the doctrine in a decision concerning the Oneida Indian Nation of New York (doctrineofdiscovery.org).
Cherokee anthropologist Russell Thornton estimates a pre-contact Indigenous population in North American of seven million plus. “By 1890, 228,000 American Indians were counted in the US, … a population decline of roughly 97 percent (Dunbar-Ortiz 28).” A complete litany of the genocide, cultural genocide, and other mistreatments of our Indigenous Peoples perpetuated by the Doctrine of Discovery and its way of shaping thinking, behavior and legal decisions, is best summarized and revealed, I think, by this confession, apology and pledge from the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
In September 2000, Kevin Gover, Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs at the Department of the Interior, offered these remarks at a ceremony marking the 175th Anniversary of the establishment of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. I share here excerpts that resonate with me, inspire my reflection and engender a similar humility as a white person benefiting from settler colonialism at the expense of our kin of color. Gover writes:
… this is no occasion for celebration; rather it is time for reflection and contemplation, a time for sorrowful truths to be spoken, a time for contrition.
From the very beginning, the Office of Indian Affairs was an instrument by which the United States enforced its ambition against the Indian nations and Indian people who stood in its path, … to execute the removal of the southeastern tribal nations, …. and to participate in the ethnic cleansing that befell the western tribes. … The deliberate spread of disease, the decimation of the mighty bison herds, the use of the poison alcohol to destroy mind and body, and the cowardly killing of women and children made for tragedy on a (ghastly) scale. This agency and the good people in it failed in the mission to prevent the devastation. And so, great nations of patriot warriors fell.
After the devastation of tribal economies and the deliberate creation of tribal dependence on the services provided by this agency, this agency set out to destroy all things Indian … (it) forbade the speaking of Indian languages, prohibited the conduct of traditional religious activities, outlawed traditional government, and made Indian people ashamed of who they were. Worst of all, the Bureau of Indian Affairs committed these acts against the children entrusted to its boarding schools, brutalizing them emotionally, psychologically, physically, and spiritually.
The legacy of these misdeeds haunts us. ... These wrongs must be acknowledged if the healing is to begin.
Let us begin by expressing our profound sorrow for what this agency has done in the past. ... On behalf of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, I extend this formal apology to Indian people for the historical conduct of this agency.
We accept this inheritance, this legacy of racism and inhumanity. And by accepting this legacy, we accept also the moral responsibility of putting things right.
Never again will this agency stand silent when hate and violence are committed against Indians. Never again will we allow policy to proceed from the assumption that Indians possess less human genius than the other races. Never again will we be complicit in the theft of Indian property. Never again will be appoint false leaders who serve purposed other than those of the tribes.
Never again will we allow unflattering and stereotypical images of Indian people to deface the halls of government or lead the American people to shallow and ignorant beliefs about Indians. Never again will we attack your religions, your languages, your rituals, or any of your tribal ways. Never again will we seize your children, nor teach them to be ashamed of who they are. Never again.
Together, we must wipe the tears of seven generations. Together, we must allow our broken hearts to mend. Together, we will face a challenging world with confidence and trust. Together, let us resolve that when our future leaders gather to discuss the history of this institution, it will be time to celebrate the rebirth of joy, freedom, and progress for the Indian Nations. (Complete remarks at https://www.indianaffairs.gov/sites/bia.gov/files/assets/public/pdf/idc1-032248.pdf