Episcopalians tackle Doctrine of Discovery during Winter Talk

01.13.2012 Dean Rhodes History, Spirit Mountain Casino

The history of the Doctrine of Discovery received an airing on  Saturday, Jan. 7, in a meeting room at Spirit Mountain Casino.

Province VIII of the American Episcopal Church brought in a panel of experts, including Grand Ronde Tribal members, to examine the doctrine from many angles for its third Winter Talk.

After 500 years, the Episcopal Church repudiated in 2009 the doctrine by which European monarchs, sanctioned by the major churches, took lands inhabited by aboriginal peoples. They did it worldwide, from Australia and New Zealand to North America and from Africa to South America.

The doctrine made it possible for European explorers to plant a flag to legally occupy aboriginal lands in practical terms whether the land was already settled or not.

There are countries that are attempting to make the idea work still today, according to Robert J. Miller, professor of Indian Law at Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland. He presented a wide-ranging history of the doctrine for the group.

Miller also is chief justice of the Court of Appeals for the Grand Ronde Tribe. He sits as a judge for other Tribes and is author of two books discussing the Doctrine of Discovery.

He pointed to countries now rushing to put their flags on land exposed by melting glaciers and at the bottom of newly passable waterways. The thinking behind the doctrine, he said, can be seen in the United States invading Iraq to install American-style democracy.

The doctrine rests in part on the idea that Christians are superior to aboriginals.

"There is no question," Miller said, "that Europeans used Christianity to claim superiority."

When Indians were hit with plagues, he added, many Europeans in America at the time believed it was God's plan.

In this group, however, Scholar Jonathan Merritt of the Earth & Spirit Council of Portland said, "The Doctrine of Discovery codifies our separation from God."

In addition to the assumed superiority of Christianity, the 1823 Supreme Court case that accepted the Doctrine of Discovery in America, Johnson v. McIntosh, limited Tribal land rights for Natives "without (Native's) knowledge, consent or (receipt of) payment," Miller said. He also argued that the American idea of manifest destiny was the continuation of the Doctrine of Discovery.

Though the doctrine requires that the land claimed be empty, James Cook in 1770, Miller said, claimed Australia. "The aboriginals were throwing spears at him and he claimed it as empty land." The story everywhere was similar.

As morally flawed as the doctrine is, it was "one of the first principles of international law," Miller said,

Tribal Attorney Rob Greene told a story from his recent vacation. He had climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro in Africa and planted the Grand Ronde Tribal flag at the top. "Are you telling me," he asked Miller, "that that was not valid?"

Greene described a federal government working against Tribal interests at every turn. "There is a record of the federal government favoring miners and timber interests over Native Americans," he said.

Tribal Historic Preservation Officer and Tribal member Eirik Thorsgard described institutional racism and violence against aboriginal peoples.

"I was watching the faces (in the room) when the Doctrine of Discovery came up," he said. "Everyone cringed. They know violence when they see it."

He discussed situations both at work and in his professional experiences where he saw institutional violence and development on Native grave sites.

Portland Attorney Ken Kahn, who practices Indian law, described some of the other challenges that pushed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act into law.

The question before the group, according to the Rev. Albert Krueger, pastor of St. Andrew Episcopal Church in Portland, Native American Missioner for Province VIII and organizer of this year's Winter Talk, is how to bring about healing from the damage caused by the doctrine.

The short answer was for individuals to do things that lead to a stronger community.

"How do you change property law that's 400 to 500 years old?" said Miller. "The Supreme Court is not going to reverse Johnson v. McIntosh."

"We have to look to ourselves," said Greene.

"It's about education and outreach in the beginning," said Thorsgard.

The Rev. Reynelda James, a Paiute from Pyramid Lake, Nev., brought water from Pyramid Lake. The water has spiritual importance to the Tribe, she said.

The Rev. Debbie Royals, a Pascua Yaqui from southern Arizona, smudged the group one by one.

The 40 or more in attendance included church leaders from western states as well as other interested parties.

They included Milt Markewitz of Portland, who sees the issue from a Jewish point of view, he said, from the point of view of the Exodus; whereas aboriginals, he said, as the world's original peoples, see the issue from the point of view of Genesis.

The group also included Rocco Tedesco, area director for the Episcopal Order of St. Luke the Healer, who had been gifted some Grand Ronde artifacts many years ago and during lunch with Tribal Elders offered them back to the Grand Ronde people.

Tribal Elders Kathryn Harrison, Marilyn Portwood and Kathleen Provost, chair of the Tribe's Culture Committee, attended the session. Buses took all of the attendees to the Elders' Activity Center for lunch catered by Spirit Mountain Casino.

Tribal member and Cultural Resources Manager David Lewis gave the lunch group a brief Tribal history while Tribal members Jon George and his sons, Trey and Tynan, Greg Archuleta and Tribal Elder Vernon Kennedy (Burns Paiute) welcomed the group with drum and song.

Public Affairs Director Siobhan Taylor led a tour of Tribal facilities before arriving at the Tribal plankhouse, where there was more history, a fire and drumming.

Portland Bishop Michael Hanley said that he had been made aware of Native American issues "because of Native American people who were no longer going to remain silent."

"If we don't remember, we risk having things slip back into the way they were in the past," Hanley said.

Markewitz said at lunch that the difference between the Native American and current ways of dealing with the environment are the difference between "balance and harmony" and "cap and trade."

"It will take a new way of thinking to turn this around," said Krueger.

"We've got a long way to go," said Provost.

The conference ended with a Province VIII resolution to strengthen ties with Native American communities.