The Doctrine of Discovery Manifest In Arizona Today

From “The Land is Not Empty: Following Jesus in Dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery” by Sarah Augustine

We can see the Doctrine of Discovery manifest in Arizona today, where the San Carlos Apache are battling to protect a sacred site called Oak Flat (Chi’chil Bildagoteel). Because of the Doctrine of Discovery, the San Carlos Apache do not legally own this place of ceremony and prayer near Phoenix that they have visited from time immemorial. Instead, the land is owned by the U.S. Forest Service. As of this writing, the U.S. Congress plans to transfer this land to an Australian copper mining company in the first quarter of 2021. Mining will desecrate this sacred site. This is but one of thousands of examples of how the Doctrine of Discovery operates today. All around the world, the Doctrine of Discovery legitimates resource extraction from ancestral Indigenous lands. Mining, fracking, logging, water theft, plantation agriculture, and other extractive industries take resources from Indigenous communities to benefit those descended from Europeans and colonial or  postcolonial nations. In addition, these extractive industries open pollute the lands, water, and bodies of Indigenous People on Indigenous homelands without penalty or censure.

I have found that most people are amazed when they hear this. The dominant narrative in the United States explains that Indigenous Peoples either sold their lands in a fair bargain or lost their lands as a result of legal war. Regrettable, but “just how it goes.” Few people have heard of the Doctrine of Discovery and are surprised when they realize that these injustices are perfectly legal. Because European and Western legal systems are based on precedent, the land-rights issues that Indigenous Peoples face today – reflected in legal decisions made by the U.S. Supreme Court and high courts around the globe – are a result of policy set by the church before Columbus and reinforced by legal structures for five centuries. Land and resource theft had been perfectly legal for more than five hundred years!