The Doctrine of Discovery: A Legacy of Disgrace

Ken KraybillKen Kraybill has worked in the health, behavioral health, and homelessness/housing arena for the past 30+ years and is a member of Seattle Mennonite Church.

I continue to be haunted and inspired by a speech given by Chief Wilton Littlechild at the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness conference in Vancouver, BC in early November 2014. Chief Littlechild, a Cree Canadian with a humble, powerful presence, is a lawyer, former member of Parliament, and one of three commissioners appointed to oversee the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) currently being conducted in Canada.

The TRC Commission, previously unbeknownst to me, was established in 2008 to acknowledge the shameful legacy of the Indian Residential Schools that operated across Canada from the 1880s until the late 1900’s. These government-sponsored religious schools were established for the purpose of “assimilating” aboriginal children into the mainstream culture. A similar system of Indian Boarding Schools operated in the United States during this same time period.

In the Canadian experience, the federal government partnered with the Anglican, Roman Catholic, United Methodist and Presbyterian churches to run these custodial schools. Children were intentionally removed from their families and communities in order to “civilize and Christianize” them. The idea was to “kill the Indian in the child” and conform them to the Euro-Canadian culture.

Under this policy, some 150,000 aboriginal children were forcibly taken from their families and sent off to distant schools. Chief Littlechild was among them. He spent 14 years in residential schools. This “legalized kidnapping” heartlessly tore families apart. No regard was given to the parent-child bond or the children’s place of belonging in their families and communities. Many of these children never saw their own families again.

These aboriginal children were completely stripped of their identity. Their birth names, native language, traditional clothing, familiar foods, long hair, braids, and cultural customs were all taken from them. They were compelled to meld into the dominant culture and to convert to what passed as Christianity. Harsh punishments were used routinely. Reports of physical, psychological, emotional and sexual abuse were widespread. An inordinate number of children died in the schools.

What could possibly justify such reprehensible policies and practices? In part, the answer can be found by going back 500 years to what has been called the Age of Discovery in Western Europe. From 1452 through 1493, several popes issued a series of official church documents that facilitated seizure of non-Christian lands and enslavement of native, non-Christian peoples in Africa and the New World.

Together, these documents gave rise to what has become known as the Doctrine of Discovery .As a result, Christian explorers were granted the right and “moral authority” to claim lands they “discovered” and lay claim to those lands for their Christian Monarchs. Any land that was not inhabited by Christians was available to be claimed and exploited. If the “pagan” inhabitants could be converted, they might be spared. If not, they could be enslaved or killed.

Christopher Columbus and other explorers like him had the authorization and financial backing of the church and state for their exploits. Stolen land, forced homelessness, mass displacement, enslavement, extermination, and unspeakable trauma – for God’s sake!

To this day, the Doctrine of Discovery continues to permeate our attitudes, laws, policies, actions, and inaction at all levels of society. It starts with thinking of others as “lesser than” due to their religious beliefs, cultural practices, skin color, class, age, gender, sexuality, intellect, ability to produce, and so forth. Once this kind of thinking takes hold, it becomes justifiable and even morally imperative to impose the “superior” beliefs and practices on those who are “inferior.”

Not surprisingly, we can see in our present situation how the privileged are protected and rewarded, and the less fortunate are demonized and ignored. Too many churches support the status-quo. Whether it is the startling number of children who experience homelessness each year, violations of treaties to build oil pipelines, anti-immigrant policies, racial profiling, inadequate wages that create economic enslavement, church-supported discrimination of sexual minorities, state-sponsored torture, the corporate control of the press, disparities in wealth and health and access to power, the school-to-prison pipeline, human trafficking, and more, the disgraceful legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery lives on.

We need a lot of Truth and Reconciliation Commissions.