How a 15th century papal bull connects Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Christopher Columbus and the land beneath you.
Kaluhyanu:wes Michelle Schenandoah (Onʌyota’:aka, Wolf Clan) at the Vatican carrying an empty cradleboard on her back. © 2021 – Rematriation All Rights Reserved. Photographed by Katsitsionni Fox (Mohawk, Bear Clan).
The Doctrine of Discovery is a legal concept that has been used for more than five centuries to justify Western colonialism and imperialism. Operating as referees over Western European rulers at the time, a series of popes issued documents that gave papal blessing to Western European rulers to take lands occupied by non-Christians and subjugate, and in some cases enslave, the peoples of those lands.. It is through the Doctrine of Discovery that the present-day United States was established over the territories inhabited by numerous Indigenous peoples before the arrival of European colonists.
A papal bull is a type of public decree issued by the pope. The Doctrine of Discovery emulates from papal bulls that responded to Portugal's seafaring expeditions to non-Christian lands and later to Christopher Columbus' 1492 expedition to the lands that are today known as the Americas. In the relevant papal bulls, a series of popes granted the Portuguese—and later the Spanish—papal permission to subjugate and even enslave non-Christians around the world in any territory their ships reached and to claim that territory for themselves. The relevant papal bulls have never been rescinded.
From the Indigenous Values Initiative's Doctrine of Discovery Project
Courts in the present-day United States have been grounding decisions in the Doctrine of Discovery since before the establishment of the United States. In the more than two centuries that have followed the establishment of the United States, the Supreme Court has relied on the doctrine to decide a multitude of cases to the disadvantage of Indigenous Nations. Episode 2 of this podcast series focuses on City of Sherrill, New York v. Oneida Indian Nation, but there were many before and have been many since that decision. The Indigenous Values Initiative's Doctrine of Discovery Project lists a selection of court cases that formed the precedents for City of Sherrill, New York v. Oneida Indian Nation of New York and subsequent cases for which City of Sherrill, New York v. Oneida Indian Nation of New York has served as precedent.
City of Sherrill, New York v. Oneida Indian Nation of New York 544 U.S. 197 (2005) was a U.S. Supreme Court case that questioned whether a sovereign Indigenous nation in the United States (in this case, the Oneida Nation of New York) could exercise sovereignty to the exclusion of state governments over land it that it purchased from non-Indigenous landholders that was part of the nation's reservation per its original treaty with the United States, but which the nation had sold to non-Indigenous persons in the intervening years.
In an opinion authored by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Supreme Court ruled that sovereign Indigenous nations could not regain sovereignty over land once it had relinquished control over the land to parties subject to the jurisdiction of state governments. The opinion relied on the Doctrine of Discovery in its reasoning. The only dissent was filed by Justice John Paul Stevens, but while he would have granted the Oneida Nation sovereignty over the land, the Doctrine of Discovery itself remained unchallenged in his opinion.
Source: Dana Lloyd, "City of Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation of New York," Doctrine of Discovery Project (19 October 2022), https://doctrineofdiscovery.org/sherrill-v-oneida-opinion-of-the-court/.
Photo by Hieu Nguyen (October 9, 2018). "Syracuse community gathers downtown at Indigenous Peoples Celebration". The Daily Orange. https://dailyorange.com/2018/10/syracuse-community-gathers-downtown-indigenous-peoples-celebration/
In 1934, the City of Syracuse erected and dedicated a monument to Christopher Columbus that stands outside the Onondaga County Courthouse. This was part of a larger effort at the time to symbolically recognize the contributions of Italian Americans to the United States and acknowledge the hostility that Italian Americans had faced.
However, while Columbus represents to many Italian Americans a point of pride and sense of belonging to American history—and represents to other Americans the point at which American history begins—Indigenous Peoples view Columbus as a symbol of their exclusion from American history and the figurative and literal erasure of Indigenous Peoples in the creation of the United States. This has galvanized efforts by Indigenous Americans and allies to add greater historical context to the story of Columbus by incorporating Indigenous perspectives into the presentation of American history, and it has spurred calls for the removal of monuments to Columbus and for changing place names eponymous with Columbus.
This has included efforts to remove the statue of Columbus in downtown Syracuse. In October 2020, Syracuse Mayor Ben Walsh announced plans to remove the statue and replace it with a heritage site that would continue to honor Italian Americans while also acknowledging the contributions of Indigenous Americans and other marginalized groups. In March 2022, a judge ruled that Mayor Walsh did not have the authority to remove the statue. As of November 2022, the City of Syracuse is considering options for appealing the decision.
Chief Irving Powless Jr. was Chief of the Beaver Clan of the Onondaga Nation from 1964 until his death in 2017 at age 88. An historian, statesman, actor, musician, and veteran, he lectured about Indigenous culture and sovereignty, and was a key spokesperson for the Haudenosaunee nations.