Monday, May 9, 2011

"Christianity, American Indians, and the Doctrine of Discovery"

Robert Miller of Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland, Oregon, has posted a useful paper on line for those who need a quick review (or refresher course) of one reason why few Europeans had a problem with taking the land of the aboriginal inhabitants of Australasia and the Western Hemisphere. It's called "Christianity, American Indians, and the Doctrine of Discovery," (free download PDF) and he carries its history from the Crusades through the era of Columbus and up through Manifest Destiny. (The paper was part of an anthology, Remembering Jamestown: Hard Questions About Christian Mission, Amos Yong, Barbara Brown Zikmund, eds., Pickwick Publications, 2010.)

The analysis is detailed, and different stages of the doctrine are distinguished as it grew and became incorporated in American law. Miller ultimately identifies ten components, one of them being the notion (my paraphrase) that it was OK to take Indians' land because they weren't really using it. Interestingly, many versions did include some limitations on what the superior Europeans were allowed to do -- the doctrine was not always supposed to be a blank check.

Miller notes that the doctrine (and the laws and judicial decisions growing out of it) are firmly based on the idea that Christianity is the only true religion (which at least makes it plausible that natives should be forced to give up their land and independence in return for being converted). I gather from his final paragraph that some Christians nowadays would like to see the doctrine repudiated. The main issue for genealogists and historians is to understand it and to realize how deep it runs.

(Hat tip to the Legal History Blog.)

2 comments:

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Harry Seo said...
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