Common Questions About the Doctrine of Discovery

Click on the questions below to learn more about the Doctrine of Discovery.

The “Doctrine of Discovery” is a philosophical and legal framework dating to the 15th century that gave Christian governments moral and legal rights to invade and seize indigenous lands and dominate Indigenous Peoples. The patterns of oppression that continue to dispossess Indigenous Peoples of their lands today are found in numerous historical documents such as Papal Bulls, Royal Charters and U.S. Supreme Court rulings as recent as 2005. Collectively, these and other concepts form a paradigm of domination that legitimates extractive industries that displace and destroy many Indigenous Peoples and other vulnerable communities, as well as harm the earth.

The Doctrine of Discovery can be seen as a “power and principality” based on the following ideas that grew out of Christendom.

  1. Theologies of Entitlement – Three main scriptural texts under grid the Doctrine of Discovery:
    • The Great Commission “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” – Matthew 28:19-20
    • The divine mandate to submit to government rule “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities: for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. ” – Romans 13:1.
    • The narrative of a conventional people justified in taking possessions of land as described in the Exodus story, out of which Manifest Destiny in the U.S. grew out of.
  2. Justification of Violence – Christendom empowered European governments to use coercion and violence, including genocide and enslavement. The theologies of entitlement legitimized their conquest of both people and land.
  3. Terra Nullius or Empty Land – Terra Nullius is the theological and legal doctrine that “discovered” lands were devoid of humans if the original people who lived there, defined as “heathens, pagans, and infidels,” were not ruled by a Christian prince

The Three “E’s” provide a helpful way to summarize the destructive results of the Doctrine of Discovery.

  1. Enslavement/Exploitation – Because the Doctrine did not consider Indigenous Peoples to be human if they weren’t Christian, conquering nations were allowed to make slaves of the people they encountered. For example of the 1452 Papal Bull Dum Diversas says that Christian sovereigns are empowered by the Church to “invade, capture vanquish and subdue… all Saracens (Muslims) and Pagans and all enemies of Christ… to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery… and to take away all their possessions and property.”
  2. Extraction – In many places around the world, the Doctrine of Discovery has legitimated mining, fracking, logging, water theft, plantation agriculture, and other extraction industries that take resources from Indigenous communities to benefit the wealth of those descended from Europeans and colonial or post colonial nations.
  3. Extermination/Extinction – Before Europeans came to North america, there were as many as 18 million Indigenous Peoples living on the continent. By the end of the 19th century, they numbered fewer than 250,000. Millions of people died because they did not have natural immunity to European diseases, nor could the resist the technologies of war the Europeans used to overpower and decimate native populations. So when European settlers arrived on the scene the country often appeared to be nearly empty or devoid of significant human activity

The painful truth is that 500+ years of international policies that unfairly took advantage of Indigenous Peoples continue to give advantage to us (North Americans, Christian, or those of European descent) This situation tends to other continents as well.

In the country of Suriname (South America), gold mining companies given access to indigenous land have poisoned the water sheds with mercury, threatening the lives of all beings dependent on water for survival – from fish to human communities.

Currently, the U.S. senate is considering a land swap in Arizona that trades reservation land sacred to the Apache Indians for copper mining interests owned by an Australian company.

Fracking for oil and natural gas and the threat of tar sands oil pipelines on or near Native land holdings threaten groundwater in North Dakota.

The list is long and continues to grow.

Here are some questions to explore how our lives today may be connected to the legacies of the Doctrine of Discovery: enslavement, extraction and extinction:

  1. Do you know how the land where you live was originally acquired?
  2. Can you trace the gems or precious metal in the jewelry you wear?
  3. Do you know where the rare metals used to produce your smart phone, Ipad, or laptop come from?
  4. Where does the water bottled in the drinks you buy come from?
  5. Do you eat foods or use products made with palm oil?
  6. Do you think about using alternatives to driving or consider using mass transit if it’s available? Petroleum extraction continues to displace Indigenous Peoples in many parts of the world.


For an overview of the Doctrine of Discovery in international and US law, check out the Wikipedia article on the Doctrine of Discovery.


A Deeper Look at the Doctrine Of Discovery

 This is a growing list. Please let us know of any other resources we should add!

A Blog Series on the Doctrine of Discovery, published by Mennonite Church USA 

By Coalition Co-Chair Sarah Augustine


An interview with Coalition Co-Chair Sarah Augustine


Blog by Jenn Carreto


Here are 3 studies that look specifically at ways the Church can engage in the reconciliation process: adopt and comply with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples; repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery; respect Indigenous spirituality. Honoring the call of Indigenous peoples from around the world, Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) has specifically summoned, not only the State, but all churches to embrace the TRC’s Calls to Action. 

Short articles written by both Indigenous and Settler authors, combined with poetry and visual arts provide a rich, engaging and accessible resource for individual and group conversation. Study guides are included in each volume. Several Coalition members are among the contributors.

  • “Wrongs to Rights: How churches can engage the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples”
  • “Yours, Mine, Ours: Unravelling the Doctrine of Discovery”
  • “Quest for Respect: The Church and Indigenous Spirituality”


Get a copy of the series at CommonWord Bookstore and Resource Center.


Additional Resources: