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Legacy of the Discovery Doctrine

By Bill Batt
A Review of Unsettling Truths: The Ongoing, Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery by Mark Charles and Soong-Chan Rah. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2019. 

In the past two decades, a plethora of books and articles have been published, focusing on what is often called the Doctrine of Discovery, which make clear that much of the history related to this so-called Doctrine needs revision. Simply stated, the Doctrine of Discovery refers to a historically widely-accepted notion that ownership titles to occupied territories, whose native inhabitants were not subject to European Christian dominion, resided with the foreign government’s subjects who occupied these lands. Derived as a ‘sovereign right’ from premises found in both Church and Civil Law, colonizers from European nations were licensed, by their governments, to claim lands and their resources, as well as to rule over their native populations. For European explorers, settlers and their sponsors, it was a case of ‘finders-keepers.’

The assumptions on which the Doctrine of Discovery relied, and which were accepted for centuries, are again facing critical challenges, as they have been for decades. Many questions arise: How can legal systems unravel and revise laws on which entire civilizations rest when these legal frameworks have been shown to be based on faulty premises and claims of legitimacy? How can these colonialist notions of ownership be regarded as valid, especially for land and other natural resources, when earlier systems of law and common practice are shown to have a more compelling claim? How can our earth and all its fruits be divided up and parceled out, in a privileged manner, to a self-selected group of peoples?

The earliest scholarly studies and analysis of this discomfiting history focused largely on treaty arrangements related to land and other property rights, but more recent studies question the entire frameworks of law on which the world of European jurisprudence rested. The legitimacy and legality of treaties between native peoples and European settlers and their descendants, and related political and economic settlement, is now, once again, being critically questioned. 

The most recent book to address some of this history is by two authors, both American citizens but not of European heritage: Mark Charles and Soong-Chan Rah. (Mark Charles is Navaho on his father’s side and Dutch on his mother’s. Soong-Chan Rah is of Korean descent.) Their book is aptly titled Unsettling Truths: The Ongoing, Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery. The chapters combine to develop a clear storyline, but they also function as separate essays. As a whole, they describe and explain how the Discovery Doctrine developed and was applied in its American context. The authors’ presentation is very troubling. 

The chapters begin with a summary explanation of the origins and meaning of the Discovery Doctrine, and then proceed in the following chapters to examine the hermeneutics of its framework. (Soong-Chan Rah is a professor of theology.) One chapter is devoted to the deeply embedded notion of white supremacy, while another chapter closely examines the idea of American exceptionalism. The “dysfunctional theology” and the colonialism that grew out of it and justified such policies makes clear that much of our American history is a matter of social construction, and that often it has been and is counterfeit in nature. 

The narratives that underlie American exceptionalism and white supremacy have supported a social culture and historical mythology that has allowed, and even sanctioned, a troubling past. Two chapters on Abraham Lincoln make clear that he has an egregious historical and political record, even including genocide. For this assertion, the authors have relied on historical materials not widely used or referenced in conventional academic programs.

In 1862 Lincoln signed the Pacific Railway Act, which resulted in the removal of the Dakota and Winnebago tribes from their lands to make way for rail and telegraph lines to the Pacific. In the process of a brutal resettlement, thirty-nine Dakota warriors were hanged with nearly 4,000 settlers looking on. Another 1,500 tribal members were crowded onto boats, barges and railcars to be transported across the Missouri River. Without adequate food, clothing or shelter, many died on the way to Ft. Thompson where they were imprisoned. Ethnic cleansing continued with a daily reward of up to $2 and $75 bounty per scalp. 

The Navajo tribe was also herded to Bosque Redondo under the supervision of Kit Carson as authorized by Lincoln on January 15, 1864. Thousands died along the way of this forced march.  The Cheyanne and Arapaho nations were similarly removed or else slaughtered, even though peace treaties had been signed a decade earlier. American military officers were ordered to “take no prisoners,” and paraded body parts in downtown Denver after a massacre on November 29, 1864. All this is heavily documented in historical accounts and public documents. Lincoln’s own writing gives ample evidence that “native lives did not matter ”to him.  The Homestead Act of May 1862 allowed for the decimation of native peoples; settlers could claim title to160 acres if they remained on it for five years.

Charles and Rah present their arguments and conclusions with considerable reticence, and with an acute appreciation that to revise and repair this tragic historical and national legacy is generally beyond our capacities. They write with remarkable humility, and by recognizing that owning the past has value, they have opened to further scrutiny and analysis the contested contents of, and the legacy we all bear from, this thousand-year-old Doctrine of Discovery with all of its faults and evil consequences.


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