by StevenNewcomb (Shawnee/Lenape)
20 November 2014
In his recent column, Professor David Wilkins (Lumbee) says the doctrine of discovery has gone through many expressions, such as "a theological fiction" of popes, "a political fiction" of European nations, and "a legal fiction" of the United States. And he claims that lately the discovery doctrine has been “dangerously repurposed as popular fiction.”
Professor Wilkins is a brilliant and accomplished scholar, and it is good to see him discuss a subject that his mentor, the late Standing Rock scholar and theologian Vine Deloria, Jr., did so much to publicize. That publicity includes Deloria’s 1972 Open Letter to the Heads of the Christian Churches, and his celebrated 1973 bookGod is Red, in which he quoted theInter Caetera papal bull of 1493.
In any case, Wilkins's views are certainly not beyond critique, especially to the extent that his comments are inaccurate or imprecise. He says, for example, that “as originally conceived in Pope Alexander VI’s 1493 papal bull,” discovery “granted the Spanish exclusive interests in the Americas.” Yet Wilkins does not tell us, precisely, what kind of “exclusive interests in the Americas” that the pope purported to bestow upon the Crown of Castile.
In May 2013, Debra Harry (Paiute), Sharon Venne (Cree) and I saw two of the original papal bull documents at the General Archives of the Indies. It was May 4, five hundred and twenty years from the day that one of the papal documents had been issued in 1493. On the back of one of the two velum parchment documents, the Royal Secretary’s notation says that the documents were a concession from Pope Alexander VI to the Crown of Castile “to win and to conquer the Indies,” (“ganaranyconquistaronde las Indias”).
In other words, they were papal concessions authorizing the crowntoforce "the Indies" under Christian domination. The papal documents expressed an assumed right of Christian, Catholic, and Spanishdominiumor “dominorum Christianorum” (Eximae Devotinis, May 3, 1493). That assumption of Christian domination raises the question as to whether the Indian nations were considered, by Christian thinkers, to have sovereignty anddominium, or dominion, on the same level, and to the same degree, as the Catholic Church and the Spanish crown.
Professor Anthony Anghie in his bookImperialism, Sovereignty, and the Making of International Law(2004) says that Spanish theologian Francisco de Vitoria argued that “the Indians were not sovereign because they were pagans.” It was Vitoria’s view that the Indians were not sovereign because they were not Christians. Wilkins says that Vitoria “declared that Native peoples were the true owners of their lands,” and that Vitoria was of the opinion that a Spanish claim of a “title through discovery could only be justified where property was ownerless.” So, we’re dealing with at least two issues: 1) whether, in Vitoria’s view, the Indians were sovereign, and, 2) whether a “title through discovery” applied in a place where non-Christian Indians nations and peoples were already living.
Perhaps Professor Wilkins has not yet come across Vitoria’s argument that the Indians were not sovereign because they were not Christians. Or, perhaps he decided to leave that argument out of his article, while mentioning what he says was Vitoria’s view that the Indians “were the true owners of their lands.”
In any case, the ideas of domination (“ganaran y conquistaron”) expressed in the papal bulls, the claim by Spain and other Christian nations of a right of domination over all non-Christian lands, and Vitoria’s view that the Christian monarchs were sovereign but that non-Christian Indians were not sovereign, resulted in a specific conceptual framework: The dominium or right of dominoum of a Christian Sovereign versus whatever title Christians deemed non-sovereign infidel, heathen, or pagan nations to have sovereignty and dominium, or dominion, on the same level, and to the same degree, as the Catholic Church and the Spanish crown.
Read more athttp://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2014/11/20/toward-disestablishing-doctrine-christian-domination