Truth and Justification: On the Cruelties Against Indigenous People

Five centuries on, the Doctrine of Christian Discovery is still being used—underpinning all Indian land law in this nation and across much of the globe.

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By Gaeñ hia uh AUGUST 23, 2021

People outside of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in Kamloops, Canada. (Photo by Cole Burston / AFP / Getty Images)


“Kill the Indian, save the man,” proclaimed Richard Henry Pratt, a veteran officer of the Indian Wars and follower of Gen. George Custer. Pratt was describing the true mission of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, which opened on a former Army base in 1879. By 1900, there were 150 such schools across the United States, all dedicated to eradicating the culture, language, and customs of Indigenous children. Europeans sailed across the Atlantic to “discover” the so-called New World, and they kidnapped our siblings, parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents, and great-grandparents. In these schools, our names were changed, our heads were shaved, and our clothes and other belongings were taken from us. Our families endured enormous physical, emotional, psychological, spiritual, and sexual abuse. And it’s not ancient history; we live with survivors of those schools.


This summer’s discovery of thousands of unmarked graves of Indigenous children at the sites of Canadian “Indian residential schools” forced a far-too-late reckoning with Canada’s appalling history with its First Nations. The Canadian government’s 2015 Truth and Reconciliation process identified approximately 4,100 Indigenous children dead at the residential schools. That number continues to grow. Thus far, 2,100 more children have been found at Indian residential schools throughout Canada. It should be noted that the United States had twice as many of the boarding schools. In fact, the last one in the United States closed in 1996.


To justify the campaign of “deculturation,” which amounted to a form of genocide, the European colonialists relied on the Catholic Church, which authored the Doctrine of Christian Discovery, a series of 15th-century papal bulls that gave European “explorers” the right to claim dominion over lands they “discovered” unoccupied by Christians as terra nullis, or empty lands. The Doctrine of Christian Discovery created a theological and legal artifice that allowed Catholic colonizers—and later Protestant allies—to rationalize the violent enslavement, exploitation, and extractions they enacted in the name of church and crown.


Five centuries on, the Doctrine of Christian Discovery is still being used—underpinning all Indian land law in this nation and across much of the globe. In 2005, the doctrine was cited in a Supreme Court decision by Ruth Bader Ginsburg that denied the Oneida Nation—part of the Six Nation Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy, which includes the Onondaga Nation of which I am a citizen—the right to repatriate lands within their original treaty footprint.


The cruelty, violence, and brutality were the point of these “educational institutions.” The trauma and harm experienced within these residential schools continues to reverberate within our communities as people grow up without their Indigenous language, cultures, or ways of knowing.


The echoes are heard every time a woman or girl goes missing or is murdered. We feel the impact of the boarding schools in the lateral violence of sexual assault and domestic abuses experienced by far too many Indigenous children. We feel the impact of boarding schools in the hurt and grief, the loss of what could have been—the missing and murdered generations.


Sometimes it is all just so overwhelming that some Indigenous peoples have turned to substance abuse because not feeling is better than this feeling. But we are still here, practicing our precolonial governments, celebrating our cultures, embracing our languages, and raising our children with the traditions of their ancestors.

Canada likes to draw attention to its Truth and Reconciliation Commission and report, but one can’t reconcile over 500 years of genocide while it is still continuing. Instead of returning our land, Canada continues to build transcontinental pipelines and the “man camps”—where the men imported to work on the pipelines live—both of which are linked to the scourge of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (#MMIW) on the Indigenous lands.


And yet, the United States has not even made the grudging Canadian attempt to come to grips with its genocidal attempt to erase Indigenous peoples from our homelands. Like Canada, the United States is reluctant to address centuries of treaty violations, genocide, land theft, ecocide, and more. Where is President Joseph R. Biden Jr.? We call all US presidents, including Biden, Hanadagá•yas, or “destroyer of villages,” ever since George Washington sent troops to destroy our villages and burn our fields because we tried to stay neutral during the American Revolution.


In 2015, Pope Francis expressed “personal anguish” at what he called the “crimes” of the church in colonizing the so-called New World, but he has yet to take steps to formally renounce the Doctrine of Christian Discovery that gave the veneer of legality to that genocidal violence.


I see the effects of the Doctrine of Christian Discovery all around me. Onondaga Lake, the Haudenosaunee’s most sacred site, is poisoned and polluted. Those responsible for stealing and poisoning the lake refuse to return even just a small part of the land to us for our ceremonies and so that we can care for it.


And yet, all across Mother Earth, stories reverberate of Indigenous nations and peoples’ resistance and refusal in the face of the settler colonial state. We know that each day is a gift from the Creator and every day we start by giving thanks to the Creator, to our Earth, and to all of creation. We give gratitude to the children of Turtle Island who were sent to “Indian residential schools.” We give gratitude to those who died in those schools, including those who died running away from these institutes of death and destruction. We give gratitude to those who survived these “schools” and came home. One of the most important teachings of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy is the seven-generation principle. Everything we do is to make the world a better place for the seven generations to come. We say, “NYA•WEÑHA SKÄ•NOÑH”: Thank you for being well.

In Haudenosaunee culture, we also understand the value of ceremony and doing things according to the protocols given to us by our ancestors. One of our ceremonies is the Edge of the Woods ceremony. We meet visitors at the edge of the woods, use deer skin to wipe away the dust of travel, so that they may see the generations to come clearly. We start at the head and work to the toe, brushing away all of the trials and travails of travel. We take an eagle feather and wipe the dust from their ears, so they may hear the elders clearly. We give them water from Onondaga Lake to drink, so they may speak clearly. After this, we welcome the visitors.

To those who wish to do the work of healing and holding settler colonial nations to account: Meet me at the edge of the woods.


Gaeñ hia uhGaeñ hia uh (Betty Lyons) is the Executive Director of the American Indian Law Alliance.