This guest post by T. Lulani Arquette, president/CEO of the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation (NACF) in Vancouver, Washington, is adapted from a recent series in Indian Country Today MediaNetwork This post also honors Mai Poina, the reenactment of the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom, at Iolani Palace grounds this week to mark the birthday of Queen Lili`uokalani.
When discussing Indigenous history and the injustices perpetrated upon the Native peoples of what is now Hawai’i, Alaska and the continental U.S., I’ve often heard people say, “That’s history and things are better now” or “What’s [in the] past has passed; its time to move forward.”
This “moving on effort” must involve telling the truth about history. What many do not realize is the sordid influence of the Doctrine of Discovery (DOD) which was the foundation of over five centuries of colonial oppression. While groups such as the Seventh Generation Fund and others are raising awareness, most people have no idea how destructive it has been to indigenous peoples worldwide.
The Doctrine of Discovery (DOD) was developed by Roman Catholic Popes beginning in 1452, allowing European Christian nations to take the land and resources of non-white civilizations, and destroy those who would not convert. Its origins can be traced to Nicholas V’s Papal Bull which allowed Portugal to claim lands in West Africa. Pope Alexander VI extended the right to Spain in 1493, after Christopher Columbus had begun his “explorations” in the Americas.
The pre-Colombian population of the Americas has been estimated at 100 million—one fifth of humanity in 1492. Between 1500 and 1600 that population was halved. In Mexico alone, it has been estimated that the pre-conquest population of around 25 million people was reduced within 80 years to about 1.3 million.
In Hawai’i, the population was estimated at 800,000 at the time of contact in 1798. In 60 years, fewer than 100,000 Native Hawaiians remained. The European settlers arrived in “America” to escape the oppression of the old world but, using the doctrine of Manifest Destiny, they proceeded to repeat the exact behavior of their oppressors. In many court cases, one as recently as 2005, the Doctrine of Discovery continues to be cited to counter Native claims.
Let me make it clear: I don’t write to denounce present-day Catholicism or the Christian faith. I write to denounce those who used this contradictory Christian philosophy to destroy thriving civilizations of indigenous peoples, take their lands, vilify their arts and cultures, and leave them diseased, broken, and dead.
However, Native peoples have asserted their rights and regained some ground with tribal treaties, sovereignty, and reclamation of land, resources, and culture. There is more awareness than there was 20 years ago. The philanthropic world is championing discussions on the changing demographic in America. But we need a paradigm shift in this country, and I believe that shift has begun.
Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples
The United Nations issued the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) in September 2007. Four countries refused to adopt the declaration: the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.
The Episcopal Church courageously led the way as the first Christian denomination to pass a resolution in 2009 denouncing the DOD as “fundamentally opposed to the gospel of Jesus Christ and as a violation of the inherent human rights that all individuals and peoples have received from God.” Other churches followed in 2011 including the Unitarian Universalist and Quaker faiths. Just this year, in May 2012, the World Council of Churches renounced the DOD.
In 2010 President Obama did sign the UNDRIP. However, there still needs to be greater support for the effort to include language in the UNDRIP repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery (DOD).
You may wonder what the Doctrine of Discovery has to do with the field of Native arts and cultures. Through the arts, 500 Nations was produced in 1995 as an eight-part documentary exploring the true history of the Indigenous peoples of North and Central America, from pre-Colombian times, through the period of European contact and colonization, to the end of the 19th century and the subjugation of the Plains Indians of North America. Before that a television miniseries based on Alex Haley’s novel Roots: The Saga of an American Family, aired on ABC in 1977, garnering many awards. Native artists and creative people of diverse ethnicities may not all know about the DOD, but they certainly have experienced or witnessed its long-term impacts, and that’s what often inspires their art.
It’s important to acknowledge the truth as some churches have so courageously done.
It is our kuleana (responsibility) to ensure that our arts, cultures, and lifeways are perpetuated. Social justice and racial equality will not be reached without greater understanding, and with it, complete rejection of the Doctrine of Discovery.
This will take intentional remembering, reading and discussion. Most importantly, it will take support and action to erase its influence from our courts and our thinking forever. As a nation of Indigenous people and diverse ethnicity, including our Caucasian brothers and sisters, we must continue to do the righteous work. Only then can our nation truly heal. Until then, we keep remembering.