Steven Newcomb

An institution such as the Vatican, cannot ‘conquer’ then pretend it bears no responsibility

Last month, Pope Francis greeted Indigenous Peoples’ representatives in Rome. At the time, Francis issued a statement that was widely viewed as him tacitly indicating his support for Standing Rock in the dispute regarding Energy Transfer Partners and the Dakota Access Pipeline. Although Pope Francis did not mention that specific controversy, he did say that the “right to prior and informed consent” should prevail “when planning economic activities which may interfere with indigenous cultures and their ancestral relationship to the Earth.”

What the news about the pope’s excellent statement left out of focus, however, is the Vatican’s role in setting into motion a global order of domination that continues to be used by state governments and corporations to oppress Indigenous nations and peoples. In order for the pope to make a more profound contribution to global dialogue about Indigenous Peoples, it seems to me that he ought to explicitly discuss the global system of domination traced to the Vatican papal decrees issued by Pope Francis’s predecessors.

Here’s the scenario, the Vatican is a massive institution with a billion followers and tremendous global influence. Over the course of many centuries, that institution promulgated and maintained a mindset of domination and dehumanization. That mindset resulted in specific documents issued by that institution, documents that are easily accessible today through the

Question: After all the destruction that has ensued on the basis of documents that it issued, what responsibility does the Vatican bear for having issued those documents to begin with? What responsibility does the Vatican bear for having devised and set into motion conceptual “blueprints” for creating a global system of domination that continues to be used against nations and peoples being dominated today and thus called “indigenous”?

The deadly papal documents from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries can be expressed in terms of simple arithmetic, using key words lifted from those documents: invade + capture + vanquish + subdue + reduce to slavery + take away all their possession and property =? (civilization and domination are two answers; the U.S. claim of “plenary power” over our original nations is another).

Archbishop Silvano Tomasi of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace referred me to the statement by the Canadian Conference of Bishops disavowing “the doctrine of discovery” and the notion of “terra nullius” (the idea that the lands of Indigenous Peoples were vacant or empty when Christians invasively arrived to the so-called “Americas”). This leads to another question: In practical terms, what does it mean for Bishops of the Catholic Church to now say that they reject “the doctrine of discovery,” especially given that the Vatican has, by means of that doctrine, accumulated millions of acres of land and a vast amount of wealth said to be “incalculable”?

Does this mean that Pope Francis and the Vatican are now willing to say that our Original Nations and Peoples have a perfect right to live free from systems of domination constructed on the basis of the doctrines of discovery and domination, such as the system of U.S. federal Indian law? What does the Vatican’s rejection of the doctrine mean in terms of the massive amounts of land and wealth that it has managed to accumulate on the basis of those doctrines?

It’s time for the Holy See to open talks with Indigenous nations and peoples, while examining in detail the key elements that were used in the making of the Christian Empire’s global blueprint of domination. That discussion with the Holy See ought to begin with a focus on the following elements: The story of the Chosen People and the Promised Land in the Old Testament used against our original nations; Latin language terms of domination and dehumanization written into documents issued by various popes (e.g., subjicere, reducere; deprimantur, etc.); Royal charters issued by kings of England in imitation of the Vatican documents; various court rulings premised on those same documents and patterns of domination.

Most people fail to realize that the above elements form the backdrop and context for, as just one example, the militarized police actions by the state of North Dakota against peaceful water protectors at Standing Rock in the unceded territory of the Oceti Sakowin Nation. Such violence inflicted on Native peoples and their non-Native supporters is but one example of the present day manifestation of the Domination System created on the basis of the Vatican’s global blueprint.

The very real threat to the water for millions of people and entire ecosystems by the Dakota Access Pipeline is made evident by the fact that more than 4,000 hydraulic fracturing spills have already occurred in North Dakota. It’s a matter of when, not if. The entire situation at Standing Rock and the U.S. denial of the territorial integrity of the Oceti Sakowin Nation is emblematic of the mindset and behavioral system of domination and dehumanization that the Vatican and the Holy See have yet to address in detail.

Any institution, whether it is the Vatican or the government of a country, such as the United States, should not be able to unleash on the planet the pattern mentioned previously—invade, capture, vanquish, subdue, take away all possessions and property—and then pretend that it bears no responsibility for the outcome.

Steven Newcomb (Shawnee, Lenape) is co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, and author of Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery (Fulcrum, 2008). He is a producer of the documentary movie, The Doctrine of Discovery: Unmasking the Domination Code, directed and produced by Sheldon Wolfchild (Dakota), with narration by Buffy Sainte-Marie (Cree). The movie can be ordered from

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