​Map with the original names and locations of each of tribal community and their sacred sites overlaid with the current map of southern California. Photo provided.  

By Lynda Hollinger-Janzen with Cynthia Friesen Coyle
Wednesday, September 23, 2020

In the second of three blogs, Mennonite Mission Network participants reflect on Mother Earth's Pandemic: The Doctrine of Discovery, an online conference. Read the first blog here.

Centuries-old Haudenosaunee prophesies predicted that one day the soft wind would become violent and pure water would become too murky to drink. During the Mother Earth's Pandemic: The Doctrine of Discovery, an online conference held in August, Tadodaho Sid Hill explained that industrialization and the resulting climate change have fulfilled these ancient warnings.

"Water is sacred," said Hill, the Tadodaho, or chief, who presides over the Grand Council of the Iroquois League. "For water to become [polluted] like this is a crime."

In the 15th century, the Catholic popes of Europe issued a series of papal bulls declaring that anyone who was not Christian was not human and, therefore, had no right to occupy land. This became known as The Doctrine of Christian Discovery. Since "discovered" Indigenous Peoples were considered "pagan," their land claims were nullified under what became the basis of international law. Many laws and policies still implicitly perpetuate this medieval ideology and undermine the humanity, rights, and sovereignty of Indigenous Peoples.

Landmark case: Johnson vs. M'Intosh in 1823

The Doctrine of Christian Discovery was directly cited in the Supreme Court's 1823 decision, Johnson vs. M'Intosh. In this dispute, Thomas Johnson had purchased land in what is today Illinois from a group of Miami people. William M'Intosh had supposedly purchased the same tract of land from the U. S. government. [There is evidence that this was a fabricated case to set a legal precedent for land purchased directly from Indigenous Peoples.]

Steven Newcomb, a Shawnee/Lenape presenter at the conference, is one of the foremost authorities on the Doctrine of Christian Discovery. He explained that in this decision the Supreme Court codified the concept that Indigenous nations lost their right to the land they occupied when it was "discovered" by the European "Christian" nations. Thus, only the U.S. government is authorized to buy and sell "Indian land." This unanimous ruling by Chief Justice John Marshall's court laid the foundation for federal Indian law. It continues to be invoked, for example, in the 2005 decision written by the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in City of Sherrill vs. Oneida Indian Nation of N. Y.

Land "rights" result in genocide of Indigenous people

The Supreme Court's decision in 1823 led to the Indian Removal Act, signed into law seven years later by Andrew Jackson, then president of the United States. Forced removal of tens of thousands of Indigenous Peoples and genocide followed. In 1838 alone, two well-documented death marches occurred. The Cherokee people in the southeastern part of the United States were driven from their land to Oklahoma in The Trail of Tears. In the Trail of Death, the Potawatomi people were tricked and forced from their lands south and east of Lake Michigan to Kansas, and later Oklahoma.

Before the arrival of European settlers, the population of Indigenous Peoples in the Americas is estimated to have been between 60 million to more than 100 million. By 1600, only four million remained. Called The Great Dying, this was not only an extermination of more than 90 percent of Indigenous Peoples in the Americas, it was an erasure of more than 10 percent of the world's population.

Separation of church and state?

"Even though we say we are a nation that is built on the idea of separation of church and state, the Supreme court still turns to 'Christian' documents [the papal bulls] with regard to Indigenous Peoples and their rights," said Cynthia Friesen Coyle, one of the Mission Network participants in the Mother Earth Pandemic conference.

Friesen Coyle marvels that despite physical massacres and cultural genocide through forced participation in boarding schools that sought to "kill the Indian, to save the child," Indigenous cultures have survived.

Mooney D'Arcy of the Acjachemen Nation/Juaneno Band of Mission Indians said that within 70 years of White settler arrival in her people's territory [southern California], the land became unrecognizable. She presented a map with the original names and locations of each of tribal community and their sacred sites overlaid with the current map of southern California.  Mooney D'Arcy's visual presentation of her ancestral lands before the arrival of White settlers made a deep impression on Friesen Coyle, a graphic designer.

"The concrete and asphalt everywhere, the chopping up of land into small 'owned' plots, the mining and fracking, the lack of care for the forests that lead to forest fires, the polluted lakes and rivers, the disrespect we have had for their sacred sites . . . I was filled with profound sadness at what we have done to the land, the animals, and the people of this land in the name of progress," Friesen Coyle said. "We are so blind!"

On her walks around Goshen, Indiana, where she lives, Friesen Coyle said she often wonders how the area looked before settlers, when the Potawatomi people lived with the land and took care of the earth.

The devastating forest fires currently raging through the land of Mooney D'Arcy's people are, in part, a result of White settler forest management practices and industrialization that doesn't factor in environmental costs. These fires, like a raging fever, are another symptom of the colonizing virus that is Mother Earth's Pandemic.

After participating in the conference, Friesen Coyle and Hollinger-Janzen wonder how White settler descendants can live as good guests on the land. Other Anabaptists are also actively reflecting on this question. Anabaptist Dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery Coalition held their annual meetings in tandem with the Mother Earth's Pandemic conference. 






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​Lynda Hollinger-Janzen is a writer for Mennonite Mission Network.



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