mapping the Doctrine of Discovery cover photo.

season1  · 12 Feb 2022

Episode 0 - Introduction to Mapping the Doctrine of Discovery Podcast

Our hosts (Philip P. Arnold & Sandy Bigtree) introduce the concept of the Doctrine of Discovery and give some of the keywords for the podcast

⤓ Download a transcript of Episode 0 as a PDF // → Subscribe

We begin this episode with a land acknowledgement. Our hosts Prof. Philip P. Arnold and Sandy Bigtree (Mohawk Nation) begin by explaining the need for and importance of this podcast and how they hope it will be a helpful educational resource for college classrooms.

To begin mapping The Doctrine of Discovery our hosts start by discussing the iconic, Christopher Columbus. A man who literally embodies the Doctrine of Discovery. His voyage was funded by the Roman Catholic Church and the Crowns of Europe. A series of papal bulls provided the theological and legal justifications for the European settler-colonizers to feel comfortable participating in Enslavement, Exploitation, and Extraction (Steven T. Newcomb’s Pagans in the Promised Land helps to explain this helpful summary of the Papal Bulls).

Moving forward in the historical discussion Arnold and Bigtree ask how do a series of Papal Bulls become codified in U.S. law and religion and why are they so important today? They turn our attention to Johnson v. M’Intosh (1823). In this Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) ruling Chief Justice John Marshall codifies the Papal Bulls along with various treaties, and land patents into what is now known as the Doctrine of Discovery. Our hosts suggest that it is more accurate to speak of it as the Doctrine of Christian Discovery or the Christian Doctrine of Discovery because while Marshall seeks to downplay Christianity; nonetheless the Doctrine of Discovery is profoundly Christian. Continuing to focus on the legal dimension of the doctrine we move forward to the 2005 Sherrill v. Oneida case. Noted liberal justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg authors the court’s decision and in footnote 1 writes:

Under the “doctrine of discovery,” County of Oneida v. Oneida Indian Nation of N. Y…. “fee title to the lands occupied by Indians when the colonists arrived became vested in the sovereign–first the discovering European nation and later the original States and the United States,” Oneida Indian Nation of N. Y. v. County of Oneida… In the original 13 States, “fee title to Indian lands,” or “the pre-emptive right to purchase from the Indians, was in the State…” Both before and after the adoption of the Constitution, New York State acquired vast tracts of land from Indian tribes through treaties it independently negotiated, without National Government participation…

Ginsburg’s footnote further illustrates how the Doctrine of Christian Discovery is foundational to U.S. property law and is supported by SCOTUS across the religious and political spectrum.

Turning from law Arnold and Bigtree move on to examining the religious dimensions of the Doctrine of Christian Discovery. To understand how the doctrine functions, one must understand how it combines Christianity and law together in an attempt to undermine Indigenous sovereignty. The Doctrine of Christian Discovery is not only about law and land but also about religious observance and the separation between church and state. Bigtree puts it eloquently:

The Doctrine of Discovery justified the conversion of native people. When they came into Haudenosaunee territory, specifically Onondaga, they arrived with a deed to 600 square miles of land, right in the heart of Onondaga Nation territory. This is sacred land. It’s a sacred lake where thousands of years ago, a peacemaker came and provided the instructions on how separate Indian Nations could unite under this law of peace, these principles of peace (00:12:47).

Highlighting the circulation of power and influence Arnold and Bigtree talk about how the Doctrine of Christian Discovery has impacted Deyhontsigwa’ehs/lacrosse, (00:17:50).

Returning to the religious dimensions of the Doctrine of Discovery, Prof. Arnold defines the Doctrine of Christian Discovery as theology of conquest. A theology of conquest is:

So, this is what we refer to as the theology of conquest and the deep cultural factors in our society today that are driving us towards the end [i.e., the Apocalypse] have their root in the Doctrine of Discovery. And even though it has been traumatic for so many people around the world, it’s been [more] traumatic for Indigenous Peoples around the world, it’s what motivated the assimilationist movement in the 20th century, where various Christian denominations were setting up Indian boarding schools around the world but particularly here in the United States and Canada (22:39).

Having defined and discussed the theology of conquest which animated the Doctrine of Christian Discovery, Arnold and Bigtree place it in juxtaposition with Indigenous values and religions (a concept which is complicated for Indigenous nations 00:31:48). After an important comparison and contrast between Haudenosaunee values and a Christian theology of conquest, Arnold and Bigtree move on to how the theology of conquest becomes part of the economy and consumerism (00:44:19). The theology of conquest and its profit economy are in contradistinction to the Indigenous gift economy.

The episode concludes with a discussion of the impact of the Doctrine of Christian Discovery on sovereignty and the uniqueness of Onondaga Nation as a sovereign nation still using their traditional system of governance, speaking their language, travelling on their own passports, and flourishing despite the Doctrine of Discovery and settler colonization. Vine Deloria, Jr. (Standing Rock Sioux) once remarked that Onondaga Nation provides a clear example of a path forward (00:49:48) because of Onondaga Nation continuing to uphold their treaties and hold the U.S. and Canada accountable.

By way of conclusion Arnold and Bigtree return to the root causes of the Doctrine of Christian Discovery and its exploitation, extraction, enslavement and how churches and religious organizations are working to repudiate the Doctrine of Christian Discovery and hold their religious organizations accountable.

Discussion questions

  • What is the Doctrine of Discovery?
  • When does the Doctrine of Discovery begin?
  • Where is the Doctrine of Discovery operative today?
  • How is the Doctrine of Discovery religious and legal?
  • How does a theology of conquest inform the Doctrine of Christian?

Key Terms and Concepts

  • Deyhontsigwa’ehs (lacrosse)
  • Creation twins, (Cf. The Gift of Sports)
  • Theology of Conquest (00:22:39)
  • The Good Mind
    • Men of the Good Mind (Royanie in Mohawk)
  • Haudenosaunee Confederacy
    • Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca. Later the Tuscarora nation joined.
  • Gift Economy, (Cf. The Gift of Sports)

Key People



  • Music: Onondaga Social Dance songs performed by Orris Edwards and Regis Cook
  • Producers: Jordan Loewen-Colón and Adam DJ Brett
  • Show notes: Adam DJ Brett

Suggested Citation

Philip P. Arnold and Sandra Bigtree, “Episode 0 - Introduction to Mapping the Doctrine of Discovery Podcast,” Mapping The Doctrine of Discovery (Podcast), February 12, 2022.

This podcast is licensed under the Creative Commons by the Indigenous Values Initiative.
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