Discovery Doctrine Haunts US Society

Kevin A. Thompson
September 10, 2023

(Image: Night and Day in Creation Sun Dance of Mandan Sioux by George Catlin, 1868. Non-Christian religion such as this was banned by US law until 1978, in the spirit of the Discovery Doctrine.)

The Discovery Doctrine should be common knowledge but it isn’t. Short version:  popes decreed in 1455 and 1493 that seagoing Christian nations could “reduce unto servitude” all Saracens (Muslims) and non-Christians they might “discover.”

In 1492 Christopher Columbus really kicked off this “Age of Discovery” with his transatlantic kidnapping activities.  The result has been a Caribbean, and a North-, South- and Meso-America dominated by Spanish, Portuguese, French and English.

In Latin America, Columbus and these other “explorers” are called Conquistadores “Conquerors,” which might be why United States folks forget, by comparison, our country’s origins in conquest.

Even though founded by Protestants who had rejected Catholic authority, the US Supreme Court used the words of a Catholic pope to justify US genocide centuries later.

In 1823, Chief Justice John Marshall used the Discovery Doctrine to force Indian nations out of the southeast US, on the grounds that as non-Christians, Indians could not own land, or even live on it, if a Christian nation wanted them gone.

Fast forward to 2023 and Joy Reid on MSNBC hosts an author, Robert P. Jones, describing his book about how the Discovery Doctrine still haunts US politics; as proven by polls which show more than half of Republicans and Evangelical Christians believe that God gave America to European Christians (read “White people) for their perpetual use. 

Correction: the Discovery Doctrine is not haunting us from the grave. It’s alive and well and even walks into voting booths. 

The surprising thing to me is that Robert P. Jones said he had never heard of the Discovery Doctrine before writing his book, and host Joy Reid said she had learned of it only recently.  Jones admitted, that even with a PhD in religion, it was new to him until he wrote his current book, The Hidden Roots of White Supremacy…

If Reid or Jones had read Indigenous authors, there would have been no surprise that the Discovery Doctrine is the foundation of US enslavement  of Africans and Indians, Indian removal, US imperialism in Latin American, and domestic White Supremacy. 

They could have read authors like Choctaw historian DL Birchfield, who wrote that Justice Marshall’s decisions put the Indian nations of North America “under the religious tyranny of the Discovery Doctrine.” 

It’s still not too late for non-Indigenous pundits to learn something from us. We’ve been fully aware of the Discovery Doctrine for a long time. But I’m glad the word is getting out.

                                                              STOP THE HATE



“The Reidout,” hosted by  Joy Reid, MSNBC, September 7, 2023 with Robert P. Jones, discussing his book, The Hidden Roots of White Supremacy and the Path to a Shared American Future.

How Choctaws invented Civilization and why Choctaws Will Conquer the World, by D.L. Birchfield, page 176; University of New Mexico Press, 2007.