Community Connection

JoAnna Wilson
September 29, 2023

Steve Newcomb (Shawnee/Lenape) always knew something was wrong with how history is told about Native peoples. For his entire adult life, he has been trying to figure out how to correct the historical record from a Native perspective.

After reading Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee in high school, and challenging his history teacher, Steve began realizing the effects of inaccurate and incomplete historical education. Those in power tell just enough to make themselves look good while ignoring any other perspective. In the case of the Original Free Nations of Turtle Island, (Steve’s terminology), there’s a tendency to say they were invaded for their own good, to bring them civilization and Christianity. He says this is one of the best examples of gaslighting in the history of the world.

By 1992 Steve had spent over a decade researching what he now calls the Doctrine of Christian Discovery and Domination. This is a system that assumes rights of “Christian people” over “heathen” Original Free Nations, validated in the minds of the colonizers by Papal authority. These assumed rights include claiming a right of domination (“property”) over the land and the original peoples of the land, while denying them the right to continue living free, and even denying the humanity of those who are not of the Christian faith.

1992 was the year Steve met Birgil Kills Straight (1940-2019) an educator, Traditional Headman, and Ceremonial Leader of the Oglala Lakota Nation. Birgil had traveled to the Peace and the Planet Symposium in Eugene, Oregon, and Steve was presenting his findings there publicly for the first time. That’s when they founded the Indigenous Law Institute to launch a spiritual movement of advocacy on behalf of original nations and peoples. 

Back then, few scholars such as Vine Deloria, Jr. And Robert A. Williams were connecting the 1493 Papal Bull known as the Inter Caetera, issued by Pope Alexander VI, with the 1823 U.S. Supreme Court ruling Johnson v McIntosh, and its present-day implications. Steve joined those efforts and people began to notice. Birgil noticed.

Steve had justifiable anger and insight from a decade of research. Birgil had wisdom and experience. They made a good team. After working closely together for over a year, including a speaking tour in Northern Italy, they took the issue of the 1493 Papal Bulls to the 1993 Parliament of World Religions, in Chicago. They questioned why the Vatican had authorized Christian monarchs to invade, capture, vanquish, and subdue non-Christian nations not living under the “dominion” (domination) of any Christian Prince. 

How can a belief system that publicly speaks of love and forgiveness also be used to dehumanize and even eradicate those who have a different and yet completely valid system of beliefs? How can the U.S. Supreme Court allow those principles to be used in our time to deny the Original Nations of the continent the right to continue to live free from domination? This was the first time those issues were brought to the World stage in this manner.

In 2008 Steve published his book Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery. In 2015, a documentary movie based on Pagans was released: The Doctrine of Discovery: Unmasking the Domination Code, directed by Sheldon Wolfchild (Dakota). In both the book and the documentary, Steve shows us how to recognize the claim of a right of domination that afflicts societies across the planet today.

Back in the early 2000’s Shirley Murphey learned of Steve’s work from her uncle Birgil, and eventually she offered him a job at what was at that time a satellite campus of D-Q University in Davis, California. Steve worked for Shirley for several years at Sycuan. Steve has often said that were it not for the support of Shirley and Hank Murphy, and the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation, his book and the documentary movie would not exist.

Over a period of three decades, the global movement that Birgil and Steve helped set into motion, calling for a revocation of the Papal Bulls, and for an end to the Doctrine of Christian Discovery, had reached such a degree of intensity, especially with the discovery of children’s graves at former genocidal Residential “Schools” in Canada, that the Vatican felt compelled to respond.

On March 30, 2023, Pope Francis issued a statement repudiating the failure to recognize the rights of Indigenous Peoples, while accepting no direct responsibility for issuing the papal bulls of the fifteenth century and thereby providing the basis for a global domination system that is still being used against Indigenous nations and peoples today. While the Vatican statement does not negate or invalidate the Doctrine of Discovery, it places the issue prominently on the world stage. And to a significant degree this started with Birgil and Steve in 1992.

Belief is a powerful thing; a force that can move mountains and justify unspeakable acts. The belief that some people have the right to dominate others, and the belief that they don’t. While many people now recognize the injustices caused and perpetuated by the Doctrine of Discovery and Domination, not many of us have the tools and courage to challenge them in a way that Steve and Birgil have. I believe they are heroes.

Steve’s work is available on his website: