The Doctrine of Discovery, a 500-year-old Christian dogma that justified the genocide of millions of non-Christian peoples around the world—and continues to justify the expropriation of their lands and the domination of their societies—is the special theme for UNPFII this year. The forum will take place at the U.N. headquarters in New York City from May 7 to 18. Around 2,000 indigenous delegates from around the world are expected to attend the annual meeting.
The forum includes 16 independent experts, who serve up to two three-year terms. Half are nominated by governments, and the others by indigenous organizations in several regional groupings—Africa; Asia; Central and South America and the Caribbean; the Arctic; Central and Eastern Europe, Russian Federation, Central Asia and Transcaucasia; North America; and the Pacific—that encompass the world’s 370 million Indigenous Peoples.
Two years ago, Tonya Gonnella Frichner, Onondaga, the former North American Regional Representative to the forum, presented a paper called, “A Preliminary Study on the Doctrine of Discovery,” which explored the underlying reasons for the worldwide violation of Indigenous Peoples’ human rights. The study found that the Doctrine of Discovery, which developed from 15th century papal bulls and the royal charters of European monarchs that gave European Christians the right to claim lands “discovered” by their explorers if no Christians lived on those lands. If the “pagan” inhabitants converted to Christianity, they might be allowed to live; otherwise they could be killed or enslaved. The doctrine eventually became embedded and institutionalized in law and policy internationally.
While the 2010 preliminary study explored the impact of the Doctrine of Discovery on colonized Indigenous Peoples around the world, it focused on the U.S., largely because the U.S. presents such a clear model of how the doctrine became the foundation of federal law that still affects the lives, lands and resources of Indigenous Peoples through congressional actions (and nonactions) and the legal system.
A papal bull encouraged Columbus to spread mayhem.
This year’s presentation will expand on that study. “It will be more international in scope,” said Gonnella Frichner, who fulfilled her term as North American Regional Representative to the forum last year. She is the president and founder of the American Indian Law Alliance, a nongovernmental organization (NGO) in consultative status with the U.N. Economic and Social Council and an attorney.
Gonnella Frichner was slated to addresses the forum on opening day, when she planned to highlight the main points of a “Conference Room Paper” on the Doctrine of Discovery, which will be distributed before the forum opens to the U.N. community of governments, U.N. agencies, intergovernmental agencies, NGOs and forum members. The idea is to bring all of the representatives up to date on the issue and provide them with material they will “hopefully” include in their own presentations or “interventions”—comments address to the presiding body during the forum, she said.