The Global Indigenous Women’s Caucus (GIWC) met at the Church Center for the United Nations on Friday, May 4, for a daylong session on an agenda that included the Doctrine of Discovery, human rights, food and food sovereignty, and other items. The meeting was an organizational precursor to the Forum, which takes place this year from May 7 – 18. Around, 2,000 indigenous delegates from around the world are expected to attend the annual meeting.
The theme at this year’s forum is the Doctrine of Discovery – a principle of international law that developed in a series of 15th century papal bulls and 16th century charters by European monarchs. The Doctrine of Discovery was – and is – a racist philosophy that gave white Christian Europeans the green light to go forth and claim the lands and resources of non-Christian peoples and kill or enslave them – if other Christian Europeans had not already done so. The doctrine institutionalized the competition between European countries in their ever-expanding quest for colonies, resources and markets, and sanctioned the genocide of indigenous people in the “New World” and elsewhere.
The Doctrine is embedded in American Indian law through a series of the 19th century U.S. Supreme Court rulings beginning with Johnson v. McIntosh in 1823. In Johnson v. McIntosh the high court asserted that the title of land that has been “discovered” and “conquered” belongs entirely to the conqueror and the Indigenous Peoples have only the right to “occupy” the land. The ruling has been used to ethnically cleanse Indigenous Peoples from their homelands and expropriate huge amounts of their lands and resources, including mineral and water resources.
Two years ago, Tonya Gonnella Frichner (Onondaga), the former North American Representative to the forum, presented “A Preliminary Study on the Doctrine of Discovery,” which was a study undertaken to explore the underlying reason for the universal violations of Indigenous Peoples’ human rights. The study found that the Doctrine of Discovery, into an interpretative framework of dominance that became embedded and institutionalized in law and policy both in the United States and internationally. This year’s forum follows up on the preliminary study and takes a more global approach to the Doctrine.
Jessica Danforth (Mohawk), the executive director of the Native Youth Sexual Health Network, reported on the findings from an earlier preparatory conference for the forum. “One of the things we constantly came up against is the need for there to be specific gendered impacts understood. We cannot look at the Doctrine of Discovery as something that happens in isolation to indigenous women, but I think it’s important to make a direct link and take it seriously,” Danforth said. Danforth read some suggested wording for the document that the Women’s Caucus would present to the forum, “The Doctrine of Discovery is premised on paternalist and patriarch beliefs that assume a superiority of men over women. In accordance with Article 22 of the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, we call on the Permanent Forum to ensure that these effects of sexism, misogyny, and violence against women and children are considered and addressed in the context of this Doctrine of Discovery,” Danforth read. Article 22 provides that special attention will be paid to the rights and special needs of indigenous elders, women, youth, children and persons with disabilities in implementing the Declaration. It also provides that “States shall take measures, in conjunction with Indigenous Peoples, to ensure that indigenous women and children enjoy the full protection and guarantees against all forms of violence and discrimination.”