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season2  · 18 Jul 2023

S02E04 - The Doctrine of Discovery In The Social Psyche with Tina Ngata

Our hosts Philip P. Arnold and Sandy Bigtree speak with Tina Ngata.

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We begin this episode with a land acknowledgement. Our hosts Prof. Philip P. Arnold and Sandy Bigtree (Mohawk Nation), begin by introducing our guest Tina Ngata (Māori Nation). She is a Ngāti Porou mother of two from the East Coast of Te Ika a Maui. Her work involves advocacy for environmental, Indigenous, and human rights. She is internationally known for her work on anti-racism and anti-imperialism. Recently she spoke on Christian Domination at a side event of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous issues.

Show Notes

The international and ideological dimensions

Ngata highlights two helpful international elements of the Doctrine of Discovery. The first is the international legal principle, and the second is an entrenched ideological concept embedded in the social psyche. She emphasizes that the international legal dimension is not just between settler-colonial nations. Still, it is also present in the Indigenous nation to settler-colonial nation relationships and Indigenous national relationships with each other. As an ideological concept, the Doctrine of Discovery is deeply embedded in the present moment. It takes deliberate work to confront the ideological power of the Doctrine of Discovery.

Highlighting these points, Bigtree and Ngata compare and contrast the colonial tactics of the church and state used against the Haudenosaunee Confederacy and the Māori. Texts like Requerimiento highlight not only the violent blending of religious, political, and legal power but also how the documents functioned ideologically as well as a way to offer the colonizers absolution for the atrocities they were about to commit. When we think about the audience for these Papal Bulls, it is important to realize that the intended audience is the church and state bureaucrats, missionaries, and militaries. These documents clearly state their violent aspirations while wrapping them in theological language. Ngata turns our attention to the ways in which the Requiremiento demonizes Indigenous nations, peoples, and lands. Critically they must be wholly other and outside of the sanctified Christian social order to be commodified and consumed.

Theologically speaking, the edicts and decrees of the church and crown bless and therefore legitimate the settler colonial violence against—the sacred v. the profane. The sacred must consume the profane. Thus the theological dressing provides a legitimating framework for the economic and political dimensions of the Doctrine of Christian Discovery.  The theological, legal, political, economic, and social motivations become impossible to disentangle from one another. Each one reinforces the other. One might think that the ideological force of the Doctrine of Christian Discovery has weakened as it has become more diffuse and imbricated within society and psyche. However, as Ngata highlights in many ways, it has become amplified; the Holy See is a member of the United Nations, gets recognized as a sovereign nation, Christian churches are some of the largest landholders in the world, governments open in Christian prayer, Bibles and biblical sayings permeate the courts, and the list goes on.

Waitangi Tribunal

Ngata provides an important and deep exploration of the Waitangi Tribunal, its process, and her work presenting the Doctrine of Discovery to the Tribunal. The evidence that she gave to the tribunal is outlined in this podcast episode. In this section, she highlights the role of women in Indigenous societies, why the colonial forces targeted women, and provides listeners with an important reminder that the impacts of the Doctrine of Discovery remain important. Still, one must recognize and remember the clearly stated intents of the colonizers as well.

Haudenosaunee Confederacy and the Coming of the Peacemaker

Listening to Ngata’s powerful analysis of the vital role of women in Māori society, Bigtree offers an important comparative example of the coming of the Peacemaker to the shores of Onondaga Lake thousands of years again and the pivotal role that Jigonsaseh played in sharing the Great Law of Peace.

James Cook

James Cook served under Jeffrey Amherst during the Seven Years’ War. During this time, Cook learned about germ warfare by distributing infected kerchiefs to the Mohawk Nation. A direct connection exists between the colonial strategies used against the Haudenosaunee Confederacy and those used in Aotearoa. 

Johnson v. M’Intosh

Additionally, New Zealand judges drew from the Johnson decision and used it as inspiration on their territories as well.

The Doctrine of Corporate Discovery

The Doctrine of Christian Discovery today is also the Doctrine of Corporate Discovery because the primary utilizers of the ideological framework and legal fiction of the Doctrine of Christian Discovery today are multi-national corporate conglomerates that continue to enslave, exploit, and extract around the world. Highlighting the ideological power and persistence of the Doctrine of Christian Discovery, Ngata turns our attention to the history of philosophy and the philosophers who were enslavers, land speculators who stole Indigenous lands and held a racialized hierarchical understanding of humanity wherein because of their Christianity (The Christianized notion of rationalism) and Europeanness they were the divinely appointed dominators. Looking closely at the European academy, the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences have racist roots. Robin Kimmerer’s work highlights the racist roots of the natural sciences.  Science, when practiced from a colonial viewpoint, always colonizes and dominates.

Debunking the claim that the Doctrine of Discovery has been repudiated

Ngata has written three brilliant pieces for our project where she debunks the claims that the church has somehow nullified the Doctrine of Discovery. First, she quickly outlines the problems with Sublimis Deus before providing a more detailed analysis of Sublimis Deus, Pastorale Officium and Non Indecens Videtur. Finally, she focuses on the Doctrine of Discovery’s intent and impact on Aotearoa. Here in the podcast, she provides a fantastic summary of these pieces.

Bartolomé de las Casas

As part of the discussion about the alleged “rescinding” of the Doctrine, Nagata turns our attention to Bartolomé de las Casas; Ngata highlights his complicated legacy as a colonizer who both committed atrocities against Black and Indigenous peoples but also came to be aware of the evils what was being done to Indigenous peoples and worked to condemn the system of Indigenous oppression. Even with the writings and testimony of de las Casas and so many others, colonizers objected, saying that essentially things were already too far gone so it was unrealistic of the church to try and shut down the system by excommunicating abusers. For more, see Steven T. Newcomb’s Pagan’s in the Promised Land.

The conquistadors openly opposed Sublimis Deus and the work being done to protect Indigenous peoples from genocide. In an effort to save face and not appear wea, the church quickly capitulated and issued Pastorale Officium.As Ngata highlights, there is a profound irony in claiming that Sublimis Deus nullifies the Doctrine of Discovery papal bulls because Pastorale Officium nullifies Sublimis Deus. Sublimis Deus holds the inauspicious title of being one of the few papal bulls ever to be nullified. This is also where intent and impact enter back into the conversation. Whatever the intent of Sublimis Deus, it did not have a ideological or material impact and did nothing to slow colonization or the expansion of the Doctrine of Discovery.

The Power/Knowledge Framework of the Doctrine of Discovery

When we think about how the Doctrine of Discovery has taken hold of the social psyche, we must examine how it intersects with the flows of power and knowledge. Ngata provides two examples. First, it creates a patriarchal, hierarchical system of privilege and domination where resources and power flow upwards to a smaller and smaller group of people. The second element is the creation of a cosmological narrative of justification to protect this hierarchy. The hierarchy, then, is protected thoroughly by theological and “natural” justifications for exploitation. In this way, theology, enslavement, exploitation, and extraction mutually reinforce one another.

Pāpā Moana Jackson

This episode is dedicated to the memory and legacy of the work done by Nagata’s mentor Pāpā Moana Jackson. He leaves a powerful legacy of activism, advocacy, scholarship and, most importantly, love and care for all his relations. Moana often reminded Ngata never to forget that while the Doctrine of Discovery is old, Indigenous medicines and teachings are ancient.


The episode closes with a reminder The Doctrine of Christian Discovery will be rescinded and retracted regardless of if the church chooses to be involved. Healing journeys require forums of truth-telling and acknowledgment of the harm that has been done. Indigenous activists are not asking the church if they want to take responsibility and join the decolonization healing journey process, which is already happening.



  • 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


Philip P. Arnold and Sandra Bigtree, “S02E04 - The Doctrine of Discovery In The Social Psyche with Tina Ngata,” Mapping the Doctrine of Discovery (Podcast), July 18, 2023.

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