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What Do Pipelines have to do with the Doctrine of Discovery?

This month on Do Justice we are working to unlearn the Doctrine of Discovery together through our series "In 1492, Indigenous peoples discovered Columbus". Welcome to the series! To see other posts in the series and make sure you don't miss a post, visit this page.

In 1493, Pope Alexander VI declared that any land not inhabited by Christians was free for the new generation of European explorers to take at will. History would remember this declaration as the third of three papal bulls that make up the Doctrine of Discovery, the legal and ecclesiastical justification for centuries of European theft of Native lands and genocide of Native peoples—imperialism baptized in the language of Christian mission.

You can be forgiven if terms like “Doctrine of Discovery” and “papal bulls” don’t ring any bells from your high school social studies classes. The truth is, this history has been intentionally expunged from our cultural memory. If it is taught at all, it is usually treated as nothing more than a historical footnote to the grand story of European national birth and divinely-mandated expansion. The brutality and imperialism sanctioned by the Doctrine of Discovery is papered over in U.S. textbooks, glimpsed only in short units on the Trail of Tears or the massacre at Wounded Knee. But these glimpses are always met with a comforting explanation: they were simply unfortunate events in the inexorable movement toward divinely-mandated nationhood. Certainly lamentable, but nothing to lose too much sleep over.

You can be forgiven if terms like “Doctrine of Discovery” and “papal bulls” don’t ring any bells from your high school social studies classes.

And with that, the curtain is snapped shut again, covering up the much uglier and deeper truth: that massacre, abuse, exploitation, and theft are not accidents of the American project, but have been necessary strategies from the very beginning.

It's not hard to see this legacy playing itself out today. The exploitation and abuse rubber-stamped by the Doctrine of Discovery and played out in the rampant imperialism of the “Age of Exploration” is alive and well in the hearts and minds of Western economic, cultural, and political institutions today. The Western imagination has been utterly colonized by the cold calculus of Discovery, convincing us that the earth is nothing more than inert raw material meant to fire our industrial machines and that non-white lives matter only if they can be assimilated into dominant Western culture to fuel ever more exploitation; of ever more “discovery”.

We have forgotten the wisdom of the ancient Hebrews, our ancestors of the faith, who understood that the created world is inherently sacred and pulses with the divine power of the one, true God. Dismissed is the spirituality of Indigenous communities who recognize humanity’s place inside of, and dependent upon, the great web of beings. According to the logic of Discovery, interplay between heaven and earth is intellectually embarrassing, and dependence upon the rest of creation is weakness.

We have forgotten the wisdom of the ancient Hebrews, our ancestors of the faith, who understood that the created world is inherently sacred.

This language of acquisition and domination can be seen all over Western society today, but perhaps no more clearly in current events than in the struggle of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe to protect their land, water, and air from the Dakota Access Pipeline. At Standing Rock, we see the logical conclusions of the Doctrine of Discovery: the instrumentalization of the earth for its industrial usefulness, the marginalization and oppression of non-dominant culture lives, and the disregard for common goods like clean water, clean air, and a safe climate for all. The common good is obscured by the drive for private profit, lives are degraded, and creation is desacralized.

It is no wonder that the U.S. is horrendous at honoring the treaties we have made with Indigenous peoples, especially when these treaties stand in the way of the acquisition of resources. It is no wonder that Energy Transfer, the company building the pipeline, moved the original route of the pipeline south of Bismarck in order to protect the drinking water of the capital, clearly signaling that some lives matter more than others. It is no wonder that the Dakota Access Pipeline stands to carry half a million additional barrels of crude oil per day to market at a moment when the world desperately needs to keep fossil fuels in the ground in order to avoid climate catastrophe. It is no wonder that Western countries account for the vast majority of historic greenhouse gas emissions.

The domination of minority cultures and of the earth for the purpose of ever more acquisition is the modus operandi of the Doctrine of Discovery.

Why should we be surprised by Standing Rock; by runaway climate change; by a history of broken promises and oppressed peoples? The domination of minority cultures and of the earth for the purpose of ever more acquisition is the modus operandi of the Doctrine of Discovery.

Until we wrestle with all the ways that Discovery has infected our institutions, our imaginations, and our souls, I fear we are doomed to repeat its pattern of destruction and oppression. Only this time, in a world whose Discovery-induced scars of massive ecosystem loss, mass species extinction, and runaway climate change are more visible than ever, we ourselves could very well be among the victims.

A step for unlearning the Doctrine of Discovery: Read about the historic protests at Standing Rock. Consider how your lifestyle might demand the spread of pipelines, and resolve to do one thing this month to reduce your footprint.

[Image: Flickr user ripperda, under Creative Commons license]

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