MCC Photo/Silas Crews

MCC Canada Indigenous Work Co-Coordinator Sue Eagle, left, pulls away a blanket, symbolizing aboriginal land and rights, during an exercise called "The Loss of Turtle Island" for participants in Newton, KS on Sept 28, 2013. The group exercise was hosted by Mennonite Central Committee Central States to bring awareness to indigenous issues in the region.

I am an Indigenous woman. 

I was raised to value humility, and to put the needs of my community before my own needs. I was taught that thrift and simple living concretely express care for creation and neighbor. 

A legacy of religious persecution handed down in story taught me to value my ancestors, to hold fast to the tenets of my faith, and to honor tradition. 

It is not surprising that as an adult I chose to become a Mennonite. This choice was at least in part motivated by my desire to respond in a faithful way to the wars in the Middle East. I have come to understand through my own life experience that engaging in violence is corrosive, and can never yield the peace it promises. 

This is the context that shapes my understanding of the Doctrine of Discovery, a legal doctrine that defines who has the right to claim title to lands around the world. The Doctrine of Discovery is based on the principle of terra nullius, or “empty land,” and grew out of the church’s misguided conviction –one that is still prevalent today– that “discovered” lands were devoid of human beings if the original people who had lived there, defined as "heathens, pagans and infidels,” were not ruled by a Christian ruler. This doctrine ensured land titles for Christian/European states who would assume sovereignty over “discovered lands.” 

The basic theological premise for the Doctrine of Discovery comes from the book of Exodus, where God appears to sanction genocide enacted by God’s chosen people, and fruitful lands are claimed by the chosen. These texts, along with the Great Commission in Matthew 28:16-20 and admonitions to obey the state in Romans 13 were all twisted in order to justify claiming fruitful lands and eradicating inhabitants. Thus a religious and moral framework was constructed, its language used to shape institutions and structures in the “discovered world.” 

This thinking set the stage for 500 years of international policy designed to advantage settler populations and remove Indigenous populations from their traditional lands. 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 based on policy set by the church before Columbus and reinforced by legal structures for five centuries. As recently as 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court referred to the Doctrine of Discovery as the basis for denial of land rights to an American Indian Nation. 

How are we to respond to the Doctrine of Discovery? In our Mennonite tradition, we too were displaced and persecuted by the church. Perhaps the hurts of Anabaptist ancestors, passed down to us through story, give us some insight into the experience of Indigenous Peoples who are displaced in greater and greater numbers around the globe as oil and mineral extraction intensifies. 

We must also recognize that many in our churches have benefited directly from the Doctrine of Discovery, as lands that many Mennonites work and cherish once belonged to Indigenous People. 

We share many values and traditions, as well as land. Thus the question remains: what is our accountability to my Indigenous People? 

Sarah Augustine is Co-Director of Suriname Indigenous Health Fund, and Assistant Professor of Sociology at Heritage University on the Yakama Indian Reservation. Reprinted with permission from Third Way Cafe.  Originally published on March 26, 2015.