The Doctrine of Discovery and the Sense of Place
by Sue Regier and Nancy Corson Carter
On September 23, 2018, the Church of Reconciliation (PCUSA) celebrated Native American Sunday with gratitude and humility. This service resulted from a year long journey. Three of our members traveled to the Columbia River Gorge in Oregon in September 2017 for the Presbyterians for Earth Care national conference, “Blessing the Waters of Life: Justice and Healing for our Watersheds.” There we learned about “the Doctrine of Discovery” which made a profound impact upon us.
The Doctrine of Discovery refers to a series of 15thcentury Catholic decrees that gave religious and legal justification used by Europe’s colonial powers to seize Native property and forcibly convert or enslave the people. It gave free reign to the “discoveries” of the “New World.” The Doctrine was a forerunner to the concept of Manifest Destiny, and supported the thinking that led to Native American genocide.
In Oregon, we were treated with great hospitality by tribal members – being invited to a salmon feast at their long house, dancing, and hearing from elders. The tribes shared the history of their sacred lifeway and culture based on the salmon runs in the Columbia River watershed. However, the salmon runs were decimated by federal hydroelectric projects put in place in the mid-20thcentury without Native Americans’ consultation or agreement. The resultant damage to their lives shows how the Doctrine of Discovery works.
When we returned to North Carolina, Nancy Corson Carter and Sue Regier joined with the adult education committee to present a three-Sunday seriesin January 2018 to learn more about the “Doctrine of Discovery” that still has powerful impacts today. (See a description of this series under resourceson the PEC website.) During the adult education classes we learned more about the Doctrine and current efforts to undo what was done in the name of Christ. This began in the Presbyterian Church (USA) with the Doctrine’s repudiation by the General Assembly in 2016. The General Assembly directed an apology “Especially to those who were part of the ‘stolen generations’ during the Indian-assimilation movement in the 19thand 20thcenturies, namely former students of the Indian boarding schools.” In the northernmost US city, Utqiagvik (Barrow), Alaska, in wintry February 2017, the PC(USA) offered an official apology to Native Americans, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians – significantly in a local Native language as well as English.
Building on the adult education series in January, we focused our spring Earth Sabbath and its associated adult education classes on the theme “After the Doctrine of Discovery: Interconnections with Our Brothers and Sisters Among First Peoples of the Land in North Carolina.” Vivette Jeffries-Logan, of the Occaneechi-Saponi, and Professor Ryan Emanuel of the Lumbee, played key roles.
Vivette Jeffries-Logan opened her Earth Sabbath message to the Church of Reconciliation with this meditation:
Close your eyes and listen
Close your eyes and feel
Close your eyes and BE … HERE.
Be Present with yourself and all of Creation
Citing her Comanche grandmother who said “Relationship is the kinship obligation, the profound sense that we human beings are related not only to each other but to all things – animals, plants, rocks, -- in fact, the very stuff the stars are made of. Thus we live in a family that includes all creation; each of us carries wisdom and medicine that can contribute to our common good. If we take time to listen, to be present with ourselves and all of creation, we will know how to walk in a way that honors that truth.” In her language Huk windewahetranslates to “We are all Related,” the heart of her daily practice.
We learned from Professor Emanuel that when the federal regulators issued a stop work order for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP), they also released a document that denied a regulatory re-hearing on the pipelines. Thus the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) effectively dismissed the concerns of the Lumbee and other tribes in the path of the ACP because they lack full federal recognition even though “Federal advisory bodies have already established best practices, which urges regulators to consult with tribes regardless of their federal status.” This violated the rights of tribes who have deep knowledge about the potential environmental, socioeconomic, and cultural impacts of the pipeline project. As “a concerned faith community,” we wrote to state and national environmental groups (DEQ & EPA ) protesting this exclusion (sadly, the Doctrine of Discovery is continuing).
Our final adult education session after Earth Sabbath used ideas of the“Sense of Place” brochure developed by Creation Justice Ministries. We explored our individual sense of sacred places, the elements that we associate with “home” and how these influence our spirituality.
In the concluding act of our study, the Earth Care Committee drew up a declaration, “Honoring First People and the Land.”It acknowledges that we are on the traditional lands of Indigenous People
who came before us on the lands we now inhabit in North Carolina. Our declaration was signed on Native American Sunday (September 23rd) and is displayed in our narthex. As we wrote of the tribes now formally recognized by the state in our area (there are many others), “They are our neighbors, those we are commanded to love as ourselves as we heed Christ’s call to the healing of people, of land, and all Creation.”