Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Episcopal Church repudiates Doctrine of Discovery, calls on US to do same

The Episcopal Church held its triennial General Convention recently. Too much attention centered on steps taken to allow Dioceses to potentially select LGBT people as candidates for bishops, which the conservatives say will split the church, destroy the institution of marriage, etc.

However, the conservatives are fighting an uphill battle. In the long run, they will lose on the LGBT issue. The Episcopal Church chose to take the right step in a different uphill battle: the church passed a resolution repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery and calling on the US to do the same and to adopt the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

The Doctrine of Discovery was a principle of international law developed in a series of 15th century papal bulls and 16th century charters by European monarchs. It was essentially a racist philosophy that gave white Christian Europeans the green light to go forth and claim the lands and resources of non-Christian peoples and kill or enslave them – if other Christian Europeans had not already done so.

The doctrine institutionalized the competition between European countries in their ever-expanding quest for colonies, resources and markets, and sanctioned the genocide of indigenous people in the “New World.”

The resolution renounces the doctrine “as fundamentally opposed to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and our understanding of the inherent rights that individuals and peoples have received from God,” and promises to share the document with its churches, governments within its boundaries, and the U.N.

It resolves to eliminate the doctrine within the church’s contemporary politics, programs and structures, and urges the U.S. government to do the same. It asks Queen Elizabeth to publicly repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery, and encourages all Episcopal churches to support indigenous peoples in their ongoing efforts for their inherent sovereignty and fundamental human rights as peoples to be respected.

Johnson v. M’Intosh, an 1823 U.S. Supreme Court case, held that because of the Doctrine of Discovery American Indians have a mere right of occupancy to their lands. The ruling is foundational to federal Indian law.

Dieffenbacher-Krall, the executive director of the Maine Indian Tribal State Commission and originator of the resolution movement, said the ultimate goal is to overturn Johnson v. M’Intosh, and dismantle Congress’ claim to plenary power over Indian nations.

“This is illegitimate, this is immoral, this is evil. U.S. law shouldn’t be based on this. I want to see an all out effort to overturn Johnson v. M’Intosh just as the NAACP legal defense fund and many civil rights activists worked strategically to overturn Plessy v. Ferguson,” he said, referring to the 1896 Supreme Court ruling that upheld a “separate but equal” decision by a lower court that allowed Louisiana to operate separate railroad cars for African-Americans. The high court decision provided cover for southern states to impose racist Jim Crow laws for more than five decades until segregation was tossed out in 1954 in Brown v. Board of Education.

A longtime social justice activist, Dieffenbacher-Krall said his growing awareness and understanding of the doctrine’s history made action irresistible.

“It’s not like I had a St. Paul on the road to Damascus moment, but sometime in the winter, spring or summer of 2006, I really became aware of the Doctrine of Discovery in connection to Congress’ claim of plenary power over American Indian nations.

“So where’s the social justice behind Congress saying, ‘We’ll just do whatever we want with the Maliseets or Navajo or Hopi because we’re the U.S. and you’re not?’ I felt that because I have an uncommon knowledge for a white person about some of this stuff that I might have a role to play working in my church to make people aware of this.”

Working with the Wabanaki tribes in Maine, reading Newcomb’s articles and later contacting him helped strengthen Dieffenbacher-Krall’s determination to act, and in October 2007, Maine’s Episcopal Church responded by passing a resolution calling on Queen Elizabeth and the Archbishop of Canterbury to rescind the 1496 charter given to John Cabot and his sons to go forth and claim possession of all the lands in the “New World” that weren’t already claimed by Spain and Portugal.

Dieffenbacher-Krall also worked with Chaffee, a professor of Chinese history at Binghamton University and member of the Episcopalian diocese in Central New York, to pass its own similar resolution in November 2008, and with Hamilton, a Maine social worker, who worked with Chaffee to shepherd the national church’s resolution through the process in Anaheim.

Chaffee crafted the resolution that was adopted at the general convention.

The resolution has “a substantial practical value,” Chaffee said, because it could potentially “provide important legal ammunition in terms of pending and future legal cases that might be brought by Native Americans. I’m very happy to be just a small part of that whole process.”

Hamilton was honored to be able to participate. In an e-mail update to her colleagues during the convention, she wrote, “My testimony rebutted the comment I have often heard about this issue, ‘What, are we trying to rewrite history?’ I said that to stand in any of the colonial churches of New England was a reminder that those churches stood on a history of the Doctrine of Discovery and genocide, thus there needed to be recognition of that both by the Episcopal Church and its colonial forbears in the Church of England.”

It's not certain what practical effect this will have on the Episcopal Church's structure. The US has traditionally - and usually for the worse - exerted sovereignty over the affairs of Native American tribes within its borders. Repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery could be interpreted as a challenge to the presence of non-Native people in the US, and conservatives will say this.

However, what's done is done, and the non-Native people who are here now have a legitimate claim to residency. What we can do instead is to allow Native Americans more leeway in regulating their own affairs, such as law enforcement and enforcement of environmental protections. This would be the Christian thing to do. Remember, Jesus was an Indigenous person.

As a side note, while observing health reform testimony, I heard a Native American tribal official testifying before a House panel ask that tribes be exempt from any insurance mandates. I would urge tribes to reconsider. We want everyone covered on the same terms. We cannot carve out too many exemptions. That said, I'd also urge Congress that unfunded mandates on the tribes, or anyone else, should be out. In addition, the Indian Health Service must be adequately funded.

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