Haudenosaunee Host Doctrine of Discovery Gathering

By Jim Kent, Lakota Times


Betty Lyons, President and Director of the American Indian Law Alliance (left) helped coordinate the Doctrine of Discovery conference at the Ska-nonh – Great Law Peace Center, near Onondaga Lake. Photo courtesy of American Indian Law Alliance.

Betty Lyons, President and Director of the American Indian Law Alliance (left) helped coordinate the Doctrine of Discovery conference at the Ska-nonh – Great Law Peace Center, near Onondaga Lake. Photo courtesy of American Indian Law Alliance.ONONDAGA LAKE, N.Y. – Academics, attorneys and religious leaders from as far away as Chile gathered at this site sacred to members of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy to discuss the Doctrine of Discovery.

The 2-day conference at the Ska-nonh, Great Law Peace Center, though unrelated, comes just 3 months after the Rosebud Sioux Tribe sent a letter to Pope Francis asking him to renounce the doctrine that’s been used to justify the dispossession of Indigenous lands and the oppression of Indigenous peoples.

“I think it’s something that people don’t really understand,” observes Betty Lyons, President and Director of the American Indian Law Alliance. “They go about their daily lives and they do things and they don’t understand why they’re doing them and how much the Doctrine has affected everyone everywhere.”


Tupac Enrique Acosta has been working with members of the Continental Commission of Abya Yala-Turtle Island since 1984 asking the Vatican to re-examine the “fallacious principles of the Papal Bulls” that led to the Doctrine of Discovery. Photo courtesy of American Indian Law Alliance. Tupac Enrique Acosta has been working with members of the Continental Commission of Abya Yala-Turtle Island since 1984 asking the Vatican to re-examine the “fallacious principles of the Papal Bulls” that led to the Doctrine of Discovery. Photo courtesy of American Indian Law Alliance.The Doctrine of Discovery evolved from a Papal Bull, or “public decree,” written by Pope Nicholas V to King Alfonso V of Portugal in 1454 encouraging the seizure of lands occupied by the Saracen Turks and other non-Christians. It followed a Bull written in 1452 authorizing Portugal to conquer “pagans” in Africa and consign them to “perpetual servitude,” i.e. slavery.

This mindset of “conquer and enslave” was frequently accompanied by annihilation and held by explorers who sailed for the various Western European countries, including Christopher Columbus.

The behavior became so routine among land hungry countries in search of territory, power and riches, including the young United States, that Chief Justice John Marshall in 1823 found a “universal recognition” of what he referred to as “the so-called Discovery doctrine.”

The theoretical concept held that discovery of an area gave title of that area to the government by whose authority the discovery was made, over any claims to the area by other nations. That Indigenous people might already occupy the area “discovered” was inconsequential, as evidenced by the U.S. federal government’s acquisition, by force, by treaty, or both, of lands claimed by Indigenous nations across the North American continent.

Yet Lyons, an Onondaga tribal member, points out that the centuries old mindset is still alive and well today.

Lyons adds that people have become so indoctrinated by the Doctrine over the years and are so ignorant of its existence and origins that they don’t connect it to the root origins of where their racism actually originates and their reasons for treating certain people the way that they do.

“So, when I say that everyone’s affected,” she explains, “it’s the oppressor and the oppressed are all effected equally.”

Phil Arnold is a professor trained in the academic study of religion as well as chairman of the Religion Department at Syracuse University. Along with his wife, Sandy Bigtree, who is Haudenosaunee, Phil created the Ska-nonh, Great Law Peace Center. The Haudenosaunee Heritage Center focuses on telling the story of the Indigenous peoples of central New York. The history is told through the lens of the Onandaga Nation and covers topics such as Creation, European Contact and the Great Law of Peace.

The Onondagas, or People of the Hills, are the keepers of the Central Fire and are the spiritual and political center of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, which also includes the Mohawks, Oneidas, Cayugas and Senecas.

“This is a good place to bring people to have these discussions,” observes Arnold, commenting on the Doctrine of Discovery conference.

Some 80 people attend the gathering including such Indigenous leaders as Tupac Enrique Acosta, Izkaloteka; Aucán Huilcamán Paillama, Mapuche; Calpixqui Eve Reyes-Aguirre, Izkaloteka Mexica Azteca and Angela Mooney D’Arcy, Acjachemen Nation.

Representatives from the Loretto community, the Jesuits, the Parliament of World Religions, Methodists, Quakers, Disciples of Christ, Presbyterians, Unitarians and Episcopalians were also in attendance.

“Really what we’re doing is bringing together people who did not get along in the recent past,” comments Phil Arnold. “What we’re trying to do is get Christian groups and other religious groups to put into the restoration and healing of Indigenous peoples, as much energy into that as they have in the past into their destruction. The idea was that they were a primitive and inferior group of people. They were hindering civilization and progress and so they were understood to be in the way.”

Arnold adds that Indigenous values are probably needed now more than ever as we face extreme climate change and issues around social justice, especially here in the U.S.

Coming to terms with the realities of the Doctrine of Discovery is described by Jesuit priest Father David McCallum as a painful process for many Catholics, himself included.

“It’s an awakening to a history that most white people do not know about this country,” McCallum observes. “And about the way that we came to be on this land. And it’s quite daunting to hear from people who are legal experts how the U.S. has been masterful at using the law in a very consistent way to continue to marginalize and disenfranchise Native peoples from their land, from their sovereign rights as nations and as citizens of those nations.”

McCallum sees the Doctrine as the manifestation of a mindset of a very dualistic way of existing in the world that separates one’s self and one’s social group from everyone else; and carries with it an innate sense of superiority entitlements and presumptions.

“We can’t continue to live that way,” McCallum observes. “It’s toxic. It’s killing the planet. It’s affecting the poor. It’s feeding racism.”

In an effort to draw attention to the issue, Tupac Enrique Acosta and members of the Continental Commission of Abya Yala-Turtle Island sent a message to the Vatican as far back as 1984 asking for a re-examination of the “fallacious principles of the Papal Bulls.” Attempts were also made to personally deliver a statement to the Pope during his visits to Philadelphia in 2015, Mexico in 2016, Colombia in 2017 and in Chile earlier this year, all without success.

But the gathering in Haudenosaunee country was a success, says Betty Lyons, noting requests by attendees for similar conferences in their own areas, along with plans for attorneys to bring the Doctrine of Discovery into the U.S. court system.

Meanwhile, Rodney Bordeaux, who delivered the Rosebud Sioux Tribe’s letter for Pope Francis into the hands of the General Superior of the Jesuits, sees the gathering at Onondaga Lake as a positive expansion of an effort to address an issue that affects all Native Americans and their cultures.

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