American Indian teens head to Vatican, hoping to overturn historic papal decrees

They formed the basis of the so-called Doctrine of Discovery, which shapes U.S. Indian policy to this day and haunts Indians’ well-being, the group says.

Mitch Walking Elk and his students are unlikely Vatican visitors. But if all goes as planned, they will meet with Vatican officials in May with a plea: “Rescind the historic papal decrees that justified the domination of native peoples.”

These 500-year-old decrees are at the center of a surprising flurry of faith-based activism and interest in the Twin Cities, home to one of the nation’s largest urban American Indian populations. Critics charge they formed the basis of the so-called Doctrine of Discovery, which asserted that the people and wealth of non-Christian lands belonged to those who “discovered” them.

Its legacy shapes federal Indian policy to this day and haunts Indians’ well-being, they say.

“There’s so many people who don’t know about this,” said Akili Day, one of the St. Paul high school students preparing for the trip. “Even if we are a small group, we can shed light on it and what it has done to us.”

Although a group of national Indian elders met Vatican leaders in 2016 to ask that the decrees be rescinded, Walking Elk’s teens and parents are expected to be the first such youthful delegation.

Their journey comes as a growing wave of national Protestant denominations, including Presbyterians, Methodists and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, have repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery. In Minnesota, their churches have been offering related workshops and supporting Indian efforts to make change.

Jim Bear Jacobs, who oversees a St. Paul Interfaith Network program called Healing Minnesota Stories, said he’s led dozens of such discussions, in addition to bus tours of sacred indigenous sites. Said Jacobs: “So many people are talking about this.”

A quick history lesson: Several papal decrees, known as “bulls,” were issued in the 1400s to legitimize the domination and destruction of non-Christian people. Those decrees, embraced by the early European colonizers of the Americas, formed the basis of U.S. Indian policy, which allowed the government to seize Indian land, remove its people, and control their personal and property rights, said Jacobs.

For example, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a landmark 1823 case that the titles of land discovered and conquered belonged to the conquering nation. American Indians only had the right to occupy it. As recently as 2005, the Supreme Court referred to this Doctrine of Discovery in a ruling against the Oneida Indian nation of New York, advocates note.

Walking Elk said a more recent example of indigenous rights being superseded by federal or corporate rights is the Keystone Pipeline running near Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota. Centuries of being treated as second-class citizens, or worse, has left a profound mark on Indian peoples, he said.

Last week, Walking Elk and about a dozen students and some parents gathered in a classroom at Guadalupe Alternative Programs in St. Paul, where he teaches indigenous ceremonies. The smell of burning sage drifted into the classroom from a healing circle down the hall. The group got a trip update before joining the ceremony.

The need to heal underlies the Vatican trip, students said.

We live with historical trauma; it’s in our DNA,” said Nina Berglund. “It’s from the taking of our land, the killing of our people. Every day we see it in suicides, drug and alcohol addiction, poverty. … We’re still trying to deal with it.”

Her mother, Dianna Johnson, nodded slowly.

I’m 45 years old, and this is all new to me,” Johnson said, holding back tears. “Not knowing who I am. Not knowing my language. Not knowing my culture. You’re made to feel you’re less. It’s passed in your blood, generation after generation.”

What do they hope to get out of the trip?

“Hope,” Deondre White Face quickly responded.

Steve Newcomb was among the first American Indians to seize upon the idea of addressing the pope, more than 20 years ago. The co-founder of the indigenous Law Institute in California, he was part of the Long March to Rome in 2016, in which he and a group of elders briefly met Pope Francis and then with members of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.

Newcomb worked with Sheldon Wolfchild, a Minnesota filmmaker, to create a documentary on the Doctrine of Discovery in 2014. The film has emerged as a key organizing tool in churches.

“I’ve been working with the United Methodist Church for four years, under the guidance of Bishop [Bruce] Ough,” said Wolfchild. “Christian churches are stepping to the plate, showing this film all over the country.”

Earlier this month, for example, St. Paul-Reformation Lutheran Church in St. Paul and First Universalist Church in Minneapolis held events about the doctrine.

Walking Elk’s group, meanwhile, is hosting its biggest fundraiser this weekend, featuring top Indian musicians Sunday afternoon at First Universalist Church.

Whether all the organizing changes minds at the Vatican is unknown. But Massimo Faggioli, a Vatican expert at Villanova University in Pennsylvania, said popes are far more likely to issue a public apology for past moral errors than rescind an official decree.

“It’s extremely rare,” said Faggioli. “It doesn’t mean the pope doesn’t want to change a previous policy. But they never say these doctrines are wrong. They issue a new one that quietly replaces the old one.”

Regardless, this unusual group will head to St. Peter’s Square in early May. Walking Elk said a meeting is arranged with a Vatican official, and they’ll continue to press for rescinding the decrees.

“Apologies are a good place to start,” said Walking Elk. “But what about a new papal bull?”

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