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Church Center for the United Nations

People of Faith Become Aware and Rise Up Against the Doctrine of Discovery

By Mary Beth Coudal

This panel was part of the 12th session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, and it was organized by the Native American International Caucus, United Methodist Women, the General Board of Church and Society and the General Board of Global Ministries.

On the afternoon of May 20, 2013, approximately 50 people gathered in a meeting room at the Church Center for the United Nations to learn about the Doctrine of Discovery, which allowed colonists to control, exploit and destroy the land, waters and lives of native peoples. 

Dr. Richard Grounds, Rev. Fr. Rex R.B. Reyes and Sarah Augustine spoke at a panel discussion, moderated by Rev. Liberato Bautista of the United Methodist office of the United Nations. The panel provided the history, spiritual implications and strategies to overturn the Doctrine of Discovery.

The panel, in collaboration with the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, was an invitation to people of faith to learn about the doctrine, as well as to discuss with and advocate with indigenous peoples against it.


Dr. Grounds, the director of the Euchee (Yuchi) Language Project in Sapulpa, Oklahoma, opened his remarks with a prayer and a blessing from his mother tongue, Euchee. Dr. Grounds summarized the doctrine by saying, “Because I found it, it’s mine.” Never mind, he said, that the land had already been found, but not depleted, by the native peoples who lived on it.

After a comprehensive history of the treatment of native peoples in the United States, Dr. Grounds noted the persistence of stereotypes of indigenous people in the media: “This sounds like ancient history, but it has shaped the world. Western movies, all these racist stereotypes, indoctrinate our children today. … Native peoples are depicted as mere savages, simple people.” As an example, Dr. Grounds commented on the television series “Bonanza,” which featured the “upright” Cartwright family. “We never learn who they killed to get their land,” said Dr. Grounds. “That, in a nutshell, is the real problem.”

Religion’s Role

Rev. Reyes, an Episcopal priest and the general secretary of the National Council of Churches (NCC) in the Philippines, gave a strong presentation about the indigenous men and women in the Philippines whose murders were motivated by political or special corporate interests. Those who died while attempting to preserve sacred native lands include Rudy Dejos, a tribal chief and human rights officer, and his son Rudyric.

According to the first remarks made by a missionary bishop to the Philippines in 1901, indigenous people were insignificant; Rev. Reyes reported that the bishop called the people “less than human and more than beasts.” Thus, the church never believed in or supported the independence of Filipino people. 

Rev. Reyes called the Doctrine of Discovery “a discourse on dehumanization.” The doctrine, he said, “should be repudiated because it speaks of a social divide and of one nation controlling the earth.”

Rev. Reyes spoke of the efficacy of solidarity movements within ecumenical campaigns such as the NCC’s effort called Stop the Killing of Indigenous Peoples Network (SKIPN). 


Ms. Augustine, a member of the Mennonite Central Committee, discussed the current implications of ignoring the condition of the physical environment in which "first world" people live. For example, rivers, she said, have no boundaries, so the toxins dumped by non-natives sicken all people, including native populations. The toxic rivers harm the “indigenous peoples first, but then everybody suffers.”

Ms. Augustine lives and works with the indigenous community in Suriname, a small country in South America, which in 1975 gained independence from the Netherlands. Here, people have been displaced, seriously sickened and killed by pollution from the mining and logging industries.

“The [indigenous] people are on the verge of extinction,” said Ms. Augustine. “After 10 years, the population’s been cut in half.” She explained that the indigenous people’s lives depend on the river. These rivers, such as the Amazon, are now contaminated by radiated water. When the river is contaminated and stops flowing, insect-borne diseases thrive, disrupting the lives of the indigenous people and causing premature death.

Ms. Augustine encouraged people of faith to “invigorate the global solidarity movement” with indigenous peoples to seek their rightful place and restitution on the land—land that had been cared for and passed down through generations for centuries.

The privatization of land and rivers is not unique to the Southern Hemisphere. According to Ms. Augustine, after Canadian legislation in December 2012, “Over 4 million bodies of water were no longer protected.” This, she reported, is part of the impetus behind the Idle No More movement, a collective of Canadian First Nations members who oppose the privatization and exploitative use of waters and land to benefit a very small minority while harming the majority.

“We are powerful,” Ms. Augustine said. “I’m calling on people of faith to resist with me. How do we resist? We organize as faith communities. And we give money to those doing the dismantling work. … We ask [about our investments], ‘Where is our money?’ Are we invested in industries of resource extraction—logging, oil extraction, mining?”

As Ms. Augustine concluded her remarks, a phone rang. The ringtone chirped, “I’m listening.”

“I hope you’re listening,” Ms. Augustine said, laughing.


Mary Beth Coudal is a freelance writer living in New York City. She blogs at www.mbcoudal.com.

Last Updated: 04/05/2014

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