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Presiding Bishop on Doctrine of Discovery, Indigenous Peoples

Presiding Bishop on Doctrine of Discovery, Indigenous Peoples

Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori today issued a pastoral letter.

On May 7, Jefferts Schori joined other religious voices in repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery at the 11th session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII). The theme for the UNPFII meeting is “The Doctrine of Discovery: its enduring impact on indigenous peoples and the right to redress for past conquests (articles 28 and 37 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples).” In 2009, General Convention repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery.

The text of the letter follows.

Pastoral Letter on the Doctrine of Discovery and Indigenous Peoples

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”[1]

The first biblical creation story tells of the creation of earth, sky, waters, creatures, and gives human beings dominion over the rest. God pronounces what has been created good. At the end of the original week of creation, with the advent of human beings, God blesses all of it, and pronounces the work very good[2].

The second creation story tells of what goes wrong – the first two earth creatures eat what they have been forbidden to eat, and are then expelled from the garden[3]. They have misunderstood what it means to exercise dominion toward life in the garden. Through the millennia, many of their offspring have continued to misunderstand dominion, or to willfully twist the divine intent of dominion toward the conceit of domination. Through the ages, human beings have too often insisted that what exists has been made for their individual use, and that force may be used against anyone who seems to compete for a particular created resource[4]. The result has been enormous destruction, death, despair, and downright evil – what is more commonly called “sin.”

The blessings of creation are meant to be stewarded, in the way of husbanding and housekeeping, for the true meaning of dominion is tied to the constellation of meanings around house and household. There have been strands of the biblical tradition which have kept this sacred understanding alive, but the unholy quest for domination has sought to quench it, in favor of wanton accumulation and exclusive possession of the goods of creation for an individual or a small part of the blessed family of God.

After that eviction from the primordial garden, the biblical stories are mostly about how human communities strive to return to a homeland that will be a source of blessing for the community. Through the long centuries, the prophetic understanding of that community broadens to include all the nations of the earth. Even so, the seemingly eternal struggle between dominators and stewards has continued to the present day.

Most of the passages in the Bible that talk about land are yearning for a fertile place, where people are able to grow crops, tend flocks, and live in peace. The offspring of those first human beings gave rise to peoples who hungered for land, and many of them did a great deal of violence through the ages in order to occupy and possess it. They weren’t alone, for the empires of Alexander, Rome, and Genghis Khan were also the result of amassing conquered territory. The Christian empires of Europe were consumed with battles over land for centuries, and eventually sent military expeditions across the Mediterranean in a quest to re-establish a Christian claim on what they called the Holy Land.

The explorers who set out from Christian Europe in the 15th century went with even broader motivations, in search of riches and abundantly fertile lands. They also went with religious warrants, papal bulls which permitted and even encouraged the subjugation and permanent enslavement of any non-Christian peoples they encountered, as well as the expropriation of any territories not governed by Christians[5]. Western Christian religious authorities settled competitions over these conquests by dividing up the geography that could be claimed among the various European nations.

These religious warrants led to the wholesale slaughter, rape, and enslavement of indigenous peoples in the Americas, as well as in Africa, Asia, and the islands of the Pacific, and the African slave trade was based on these same principles. Death, dispossession, and enslavement were followed by rapid depopulation as a result of introduced and epidemic disease. Yet death and dispossession of lands and resources were not a singular occurrence that can be laid up to the depredations of benighted medieval warriors. They are not akin to Viking raids in the British Isles, or ancient struggles between neighboring tribes in Europe or Africa. These acts of “Discovery” have had persistent effects on marginalized, transported, and disenfranchised peoples.

The ongoing dispossession of indigenous peoples is the result of legal systems throughout the “developed” world that continue to base land ownership on these religious warrants for colonial occupation from half a millennium ago. These legal bases collectively known as the Doctrine of Discovery underlie U.S. decisions about who owns these lands[6]. The dispossession of First Peoples continues to wreak havoc on basic human dignity. These principles give the lie to biblical understandings that all human beings reflect the image of God, for those who have been thrown out of their homeland, had their cultures largely erased, and sent into exile, are still grieving their loss of identity, lifeways, and territory. All humanity should be grieving, for our sisters and brothers are suffering the injustice of generations. The sins of our forebears are being visited on the children of indigenous peoples, even to the seventh generation.

There will be no peace or healing until we attend to that injustice. The prophets of ancient Israel cried out for justice when their ability to live in the land they saw as home was threatened. A day laborer named Amos challenged those around him with the word of God, “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream”[7]. Where there is no justice, there can be no peace for anyone.

In the North American context, the poorest of the poor live on Native reservations. The depth of poverty there is closely followed by the poverty among ghettoized descendants of the indigenous peoples of Africa who were transported to these shores as slaves. That kind of poverty is also frequent in other parts of the world where indigenous people have been dispossessed and displaced. Healing is not possible, it is not even imaginable, until the truth is told and current reality confronted. The basic dignity and human rights of first peoples have been repeatedly transgressed, and the outcome is grievous – poverty, cultural destruction, and multi-generational consequences. The legacy of grief that continues unresolved is visible in skyrocketing suicide rates, rampant hopelessness, and deep anger. In many contexts it amounts to pathological or impacted grief – for when hope is absent, healing is impossible.

The legacy of domination includes frightful evil – the intentional destruction of food sources and cultural centers like the herds of North American bison, the intentional introduction of disease and poisoning of water sources, wanton disregard of starvation and illness, the abuse and enslavement of women and children, the murder of those with the courage to protest inhumane treatment, the repeated dispossession of natural resources, land, and water, as well as chronically inadequate Federal management and defense of Native rights and resources.

There have been some glimmers of justice in decisions that have returned Native fishing and hunting rights, and some improvements in tribal rights to self-determination. There is a very small and slow return of bison to the prairie, and wolves have begun to return in places where they are not immediately hunted down. Yet many of these recoveries continue to be strenuously resisted by powerful non-Native commercial interests.

There are signs of hope in returning cultural treasures to their communities of origin, and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act[8] is returning remains for dignified burial. The legacy of cultural genocide is slowly being addressed as indigenous traditions, languages, and cultural skills are taught to new generations.

The Episcopal Church has been present and ministering with Native peoples in North America for several centuries. That history of accompaniment and solidarity has hardly been perfect, yet we continue to seek greater justice and deeper healing.

The Episcopal Church’s relationship with Native peoples in the Americas begins with the first English colonists. We remember the story of Manteo, a Croatan of what is now North Carolina. He traveled to England in 1584 and helped a colleague of Sir Walter Raleigh learn to speak Algonquin. He returned here the next year, became something of an ambassador between the two peoples, was baptized, and is counted a saint of this church[9].

Episcopal missionaries have served in a variety of indigenous communities and contexts. Henry Benjamin Whipple was Bishop of Minnesota in 1862, and his powerful petition to Abraham Lincoln saved the lives of some 265 of the Dakota men sentenced to hang the day after Christmas in Mankato[10]. The Dakota people called him “Straight Tongue.” Today many Dakota and Lakota people are part of this Episcopal tradition.

This Church has stood in solidarity with native peoples in Alaska, Hawai’i, and the American southwest, especially the Diné (Navajo), as well as in urban Indian communities. The Poarch Band of Creek Indians (in Alabama) achieved federal recognition in the 1980s with the aid of baptismal records maintained by this Church, which also assisted in returning a piece of land to the Poarch Band[11]. A large group of indigenous people in Ecuador is seeking recognition as worshiping communities in the Episcopal tradition, and we have other indigenous members and communities in Colombia, Venezuela, Honduras, and Micronesia. Our historical presence in the Philippines began with the indigenous Igorot peoples of the mountains and highlands.

Healing work continues across The Episcopal Church. In 1997 Presiding Bishop Edmond Browning apologized for the enormities that began with the colony in Jamestown[12]. Today our understanding of mission has changed. We believe that God’s mission is about healing brokenness in the world around us – broken relationships between human beings and the Creator, broken relationships between peoples, and damaged relationships between human beings and the rest of creation. We seek to partner in God’s mission through proclaiming a vision of a healed world; forming Christians as partners in that mission; responding to human suffering around us; reversing structural and systemic injustice; and caring for this earthly garden[13]. We partner with any and all who share a common vision for healing, whether Episcopalian or Christian or not.

Work with indigenous peoples in recent years has been intensely focused on issues of poverty and the generational consequences of cultural destruction, the reality of food deserts and diabetes rates on reservations, unemployment and inadequate educational resources, as well as the ongoing reality of racism and exclusion in the larger society[14]. Mission and development work in Native communities is locally directed, honoring the gifts and assets already present[15], and moves toward a vision of healed community. We partner with White Bison in community organizing that develops training programs for community healing[16]. This is a historic development, the first such partnership between a traditional Native American non-profit and The Episcopal Church.

This Church has worked to alleviate systemic and structural injustice in many ways, and our repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery in 2009 is a recent example[17]. Since at least 1976, our advocacy work has included support for First Nations land claims in Canada, advocacy with the U.S. government for improved health care, religious freedom, preservation of burial sites and repatriation of remains and cultural resources, increased Federal tribal recognition, and critical Federal Government self-examination around Native American rights. We have affirmed and reaffirmed our desire to strengthen relationships with Native peoples by remembering the past, recognizing the deficits and gifts in our historic and current relationships, and continued work toward healing[18]. We are currently advocating for the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, with provisions directly affecting Native women.

The Doctrine of Discovery work of this Church is focused on education, dismantling the structures and policies based on that ancient evil, support for the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples[19], and challenging governments around the world to support self-determination for indigenous peoples.

We seek to address the need for healing in all parts of society, and we stand in solidarity with indigenous peoples globally to acknowledge and address the legacy of colonial occupation and policies of domination. Our Christian heritage has taught us that a healed community of peace is only possible in the presence of justice for all peoples. We seek to build such a beloved community that can be a sacred household for all creation, a society of right relationships.

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us… and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near… So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God[20]

We pray that God will give us the strength and courage to do this work together for the good of all our relations, in the belief that Christ Jesus ends hostility and brings together those who were once divided.

The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori

Presiding Bishop and Primate

The Episcopal Church


[1] Genesis 1:26

[2] Genesis 1:1-2:3

[3] Genesis 2:4-3:24

[4] Commodification or what Heidegger called Bestand, cf. The Question Concerning Technology or Being and Time

[5] Doctrine of Discovery resources:

[6] cf. Johnson v M’Intosh: http://en.wikipedia

[7] Amos 5:24






[13] a shorthand summary of the Five Anglican Marks of Mission


[15] through Asset-Based Community Development



[18] cf. Decade of Remembrance, Recognition, and Reconciliation:


[20] Ephesians 2:13ff


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Murdoch Matthew

The Presiding Bishop’s comments sound progressive, certainly better than Ratingzer’s claim that pre-contact Brazilians were “silently longing” to become Christians. Unfortunately, Christian missionaries typically sought to supplant native cultures with second-class membership in the Colonial culture. David Eller has written:

As early as the 1600s, Jesuits in the Americas invaded native societies with a “pedagogy,” or teaching regimen, that was a concentrated and unyielding attack on the cultural foundations of native religions and culture. Among the tactics used was study of the local language so as to translate ideas and doctrines “from a hierarchical, patriarchal, technological, status-ridden Christian Europe into the mental universe of the Indians.” Pre-contact gender relations were so critical and such an anathema to missionization because native women had considerable power, authority, and prestige in tribal life. Although there was a sexual division of labor, Indian cultures lacked the moral vocabulary to conceive of women as “bad” or “evil.” Another tool was the fur trade, which gradually achieved the incorporation of local groups into the emergent global, colonial, economic system, teaching them disciplines and values suitable to the lower rungs of the new Christian / capitalist way of life.

In fact, native cultures were incompatible with individualistic, property-minded, competitive European practices. It’s good to contemplate some sort of redress for past offenses, but the damage is done. Can we now approach native peoples with respect not only for their persons but for the cultures we tried so hard to wipe out?

Weiwen Ng

Communion w/o baptism got 40+ comments, and we can’t even get an amen here?

Jesus’ home was occupied by an invader. His culture was systematically disrespected. He was tortured and executed by the occupiers. Jesus knows what it’s like for indigenous people, because He was indigenous as well.

But too often, the church stood idly by. It failed to intervene. It failed to challenge its own assumptions about the backwardness of indigenous peoples. It participated in forced conversions. It allied itself with nations and cultures that sought to occupy others for unjust gain.

Now we start repenting. I say amen.


I believe it’s because MOST Primates (in the AC) are called “Archbishop”, Bill. Ours isn’t—and most of the AC world knows nothing of this title “Presiding Bishop—so we have to clarify.

JC Fisher

Bill Dilworth

Is her title really “Presiding Bishop and Primate”? What’s the difference these days?

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