Using 15th-century papal decrees, European colonial powers captured and claimed Indigenous land in the Americas and elsewhere. Now, in a significant move centuries later, the Vatican on Thursday rejected the contentious “Doctrine of Discovery,” addressing a long-standing demand led by Indigenous groups in Canada.
Indigenous groups have argued that European explorers used the principle of discovery — which was based on the presumed superiority of European Christians — to legally and morally justify the subjugation and exploitation Indigenous communities, and to rule over them.
The Vatican statement also recognized that acts of violence were committed against Indigenous communities by colonial settlers, and asked for forgiveness for “the terrible effects of the assimilation policies and the pain” they experienced. The doctrine of discovery was previously rejected by several faith communities in the United States and Canada.
The Canadian Minister for Justice David Lametti credited the Vatican’s declaration to the hard work of Indigenous communities. “A doctrine that should have never existed. This is another step forward,” he said in a tweet.
The latest move follows the reconciliation that Pope Francis sought in Canada during his visit last year, when he apologized for the role Christians played in the tragic history of its residential school systems, many of which were run by the Catholic Church in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Indigenous children in Canada were forcibly removed from their families to integrate them into a Euro-Christian society, where they had to give up their language and culture; many were sexually abused. Thousands of children died at these schools and their unmarked graves continue to be discovered.
During his trip last year, Francis was confronted by protesters holding banners calling on him to rescind the discovery doctrine.
The announcement this week was greeted by Indigenous advocates. The news was “wonderful,” Phil Fontaine, a former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations in Canada, told the Associated Press.
“The church has done one thing, as it said it would do, for the Holy Father,” said Fontaine, who was part of the First Nations delegation that met with Francis. “Now the ball is in the court of governments, the United States and in Canada, but particularly in the United States where the doctrine is embedded in the law.”
In a landmark 1823 case, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall invoked the papal discovery doctrine to rule that Indigenous people only had rights of occupancy and not ownership. This jurisprudence on Native American lands has persisted through the years and was referred to as recently as 2005.
A New York court, in the case of City of Sherrill v. Oneida Nation, relied on the earlier acceptance of the discovery doctrine by courts. Those rulings inferred that land titles were vested with European colonists, and later, the U.S. government.
In recent years, the movement to reclaim Native American lands has grown in the United States. In January 2022, 523 acres of redwood forest in Mendocino County, Calif., were transferred to the InterTribal Sinkyone Wilderness Council and, in April, the Rappahannock Tribe reacquired 460 acres of ancestral land in Virginia after 350 years.
Most Native American lands are trust lands, the U.S. government says — lands where the title is held by the federal government but the beneficial interests are with the tribes.
The United Nations said in 2012 that international law demands that governments rectify the wrongs caused by such colonial doctrines, “including the violation of the land rights of indigenous peoples, through law and policy reform.”