Editor's Introduction: Understanding the Doctrine of Discovery

Everybody knows that in the late 15th century Christopher Columbus arrived at what is now known as the Americas and that he proceeded to take possession of such lands on behalf of the Spanish crown. What is not widely known, however, are the legal and theological rationale with which Europeans justified the often violent (at times genocidal) conquest and colonization of these lands which had already been "discovered" and populated.  By the time the Spanish and English peoples arrived at Turtle Island and Avia Yala (the original names of these lands) Native American nations and empires had already been in place for thousands of years. (The current scientific consensus is that First Peoples began arriving some 14000 years ago.)   So, what logic led the new arrivals to think that they had the right to take away the land from these nations?

The answer is the Doctrine of Discovery—a theologically grounded legal rationale that kings and popes invented to justify and encourage the violent conquest and evangelization of these already inhabited lands. But such doctrine is not simply an arcane artifact of a bygone era. As you will see from the articles in this issue of JLE on the Repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery, it is a legal doctrine that has been enshrined in U.S. law by the Supreme Court from the time of the Louisiana Purchase to the present.

It is important to remember that many Native American nations continue to exist to this day and have actual legal treaties with the United States Government.  Struggles such as the one unfolding in North Dakota between the Standing Rock Siouxs and those who want to build a pipeline to transport oil through their sacred lands cannot be fully understood without understanding how it came to be that they were originally stripped of their land and put in a position of being secondary citizens in their own land.

The two articles in this issue of JLE explore the intricacies of the Doctrine of Discovery by which the very foundation of modern American nations (and Australia, by the way) is established. In the first article, prominent Native American Scholar, George "Tink" Tinker, guides the reader through a historical overview of the development of such doctrine and the ways by which Christian theology became complicit in such process.

In the second article Native thinker, Vance Blackfox, reflects on the recent movement within the ELCA to repudiate the doctrine of discovery. He remembers the long, at times painful, story of Lutheran-Native American relations in the U.S. and calls (challenges) the church to go beyond official written statements and to actually engage in a process of repentance and reforming of its relationship with Native American nations today.

We hope these articles will be illuminating and inspire difficult but important conversations.


The Rev. Dr. Carmelo Santos


© March 2017

​Journal of Lutheran Ethics

Volume 17, Issue 2