“It is the why of all the whys ... you know, when you sit around, when you look around and you start asking why things are the way they are—the poverty, addiction, despair—the Doctrine of Discovery kicked all this in play ...”
—Joe Stanley (Passamaquoddy) on the Doctrine of Discovery
Indigenous people and Quakers in New England live with the legacy of centuries of war. Through examining both the persistence of 15th century frameworks of conquest and their shared, tragic history, they are confronting historic trauma and unresolved grief in order to begin a journey of healing together. Here, members of the group facilitating this journey explain the shared process of healing.
Wars were waged for over 300 years on the land where New England Friends live. It’s where Natives resisted colonization and subjugation and defended their people, their land, and their culture. Thus we—the descendants—share a long and tragic history.
When the New England Yearly Meeting Committee on Racial, Social and Economic Justice began examining the impact of the 15th century Catholic documents of conquest on contemporary oppression of Native people, there was pushback: “How was this relevant? Quakers are not Catholic!”
One Friend opened a family Bible. Next to the name of his ancestor are the words “Killed by Indians.” He said that after taking part in a workshop run by the committee, “I wonder what my ancestors, Quakers, did to bring about this conflict and I want to be part of healing that.”
The yearly meeting committee invited AFSC’s Healing Justice Program to co-facilitate a discussion on the Catholic documents of conquest. Indigenous people from the Northeast and the meeting agreed (thanks to the guidance of Walter Echo Hawk) to guide the conversation based on the principles of healing, respect, and Indigenous self-determination.
A framework for genocide, slavery, segregation, and ongoing rights violations
Three papal bulls make up the Doctrine of Discovery, which established the worldview that a certain group of people, Western Christendom, had moral sanction and the support of international law to invade and colonize the lands of non-Christian Peoples, to dominate them, take their possessions and resources, and enslave and kill them.
The doctrine blessed slave trade and genocide. It yielded a body of international law known as the Law of Nations. The U.S. embraced these doctrines, creating a constitutional framework for slavery and later segregation, and adapted the Law of Nations as Federal Indian Common Law.
Over the last 150 years, we have seen the repudiation of both slavery and segregation, and the U.S. Constitution has been amended. Yet Federal Indian Common Law, devoid of human rights principles, remains intact. It defines Indigenous people as a political entity, giving land titles to Congress and reducing Indigenous property rights to occupancy. Enforcing concepts of plenary power and unfettered guardianship, rejecting the relevance of “principles of abstract justice” or the “morality of the case,” it affords remedies to Indians as “a matter of grace, not because of legal liability,” as stated in the Marshall Trilogy, the foundation of federal Indian law. The Doctrine of Discovery was most recently quoted in a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court Case, City of Sherrill, New York v. Oneida Nation:
Under the ‘doctrine of discovery…’ fee title [ownership] to the lands occupied by Indians when the colonists arrived became vested in the sovereign—first the discovering European nation and later the original states and the United States.
Today’s massive human rights violations against Indigenous people are the results of such applications of the Doctrine of Discovery. Life expectancy for Native people in the U.S. is 48 to 52 years. Unemployment rates in Indigenous communities run from 45 to 75 percent. And incarceration rates and suicide rates are higher than in any other racial or ethnic group—as are rates of violence against and murder of Native women and the likelihood of being shot by law enforcement. [Learn more at afsc.org/dod-legacy].
After examining this information, New England Yearly Meeting decided to embark on a multi-year journey of healing. Their Meeting Minute of the Doctrine of Discovery states:
We as New England Yearly Meeting repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery. We are beginning a journey to consider the moral and spiritual implications of how we benefit from and have been harmed by the doctrine as individuals and meetings … We need to learn more, find ways to seek forgiveness, and to ask how the Spirit might lead us … We encourage consultation with Indigenous Peoples to restore the health of ourselves and our planet. We recognize that this is our work to do. On this path, respectfully traveled in love, our goal is true healing …
The journey of healing was designed and implemented by Indigenous trainers who travel with the yearly meeting’s Minute 53 Working Party to work with individual meetings. The steps in this journey demonstrate the transfer of power necessary to right a wrong.
First we must acknowledge that a wrong has taken place and apologize for that wrong. Once the apology is offered, we must wait and see if it is accepted, if it is enough, or if there is more we must acknowledge. It is at this moment that we transfer power to those we have harmed. In this case, Indigenous people decide whether they will accept the apology.
Still, it is not enough to apologize. We must make amends. Guided by Indigenous people, some Friends meetings in New England are opening this conversation. Only once amends are made can we explore the possibility of relationship.
This journey, guided by Indigenous trainers and relying on our shared wisdom about righting a wrong, is framed by the simple truth that we have all been harmed and that the longing for peace will be answered by the development of good, equitable, “right” relationships.
These relationships are not a goal—they are a resource. If we develop and care for these relationships with compassion and respect, we may actually build the world our children and grandchildren will be able to share equitably, in love and in peace.
—Mother Bear (Mashpee Wampanoag), Jamie Bissonette Lewey (Abenaki), Plansowes Dana (Passamaquoddy) and Rachel Carey-Harper (Barnstable Friends Meeting)