Our partner organizations in Arizona have called for the repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery and the implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People.  What do we need to know in order to respond faithfully to this call? This next post in our series was written by Kamila Jacob, who works in the UU United Nations Office. – Ed.


In 1452, a papal doctrine was created endorsing the conquest and exploitation of non-Christian lands and peoples.  One example of the implementation of this doctrine is an event glorified in U.S. history books:  Christopher Columbus sailed the seas in 1492 in search for new land. Columbus followed a doctrine that permitted him to conquer and colonize any “discovered”  lands not already under Christian dominion.  Upon his return home, the bull Inter Caetera of May 3, 1493 was issued by the Pope, affirming the right to conquer lands and impose Christianity.

Centuries later, in 1823, the Doctrine of Discovery was taken up in the U.S. Supreme Court case Johnson v. M’Intosh and the resulting opinion adopted the notion of “discovery” into U.S. Law. The language of this decision is adapted from documents such as the bull Inter Caetera.  Though some claim the court decision does not refer to religion, it states that already established native communities were properly and legally colonized because their religious and cultural practices do not follow that of those in power. Throughout our history, policies and discriminatory laws have been created from this doctrine. These policies and laws continue to exist due to ignorance of this history and lack of action to overturn the Doctrine of Discovery.


The Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), adopted at the UN General Assembly on September 13th, 2007, is an aspirational document, which means that it is not legally binding. It acknowledges rights such as religion, culture, and property of indigenous peoples and holds governments aspirationally responsible for the human rights of those who are indigenous.  Canada signed the Declaration on November 12th, 2010, and the government pronounced that it would take steps to make this aspirational document consistent with Canada’s Constitution and laws. President Obama’s signature on UNDRIP on December 16th, 2010 was recognition of past dehumanization and discrimination of Native Americans in the United States.  However,  implementation of this declaration will require more than just good intentions. Fully implemented, this declaration will hold leaders accountable for defending the rights of indigenous peoples.

Native Americans have been discriminated against socially, institutionally, and legislatively for hundreds of years. One aspect of this longtime discrimination has been unfair compensation for land without due process. Now that our nation is a signatory for UNDRIP, it is time for our nation to follow its provisions.  If we support justice for indigenous people, we need to support this declaration and work towards its implementation. The first step is awareness; being aware not only of issues at hand, but also of ourselves, our assumptions, and the holes in our knowledge of our own history.  Here are some things we can do:

  • We can ask ourselves, what is the relationship with tribal governments regarding natural resources in our community, state, and nations?  Is our government taking into account the sovereignty of Indigenous people around issues of natural resources?
  • We can support affirming the right of indigenous peoples to exist as nations and make our position known to elected representatives, government officials and in public venues.
  • We can look at how we educate children in our communities. Rights of Native Americans have been overlooked due to the deliberate denial of our U.S. history regarding the indigenous people in our land.  We can raise public awareness of  the ways in which the history being taught in our schools is not the same history that Native Americans have experienced.
  • We can join the call to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery and embrace and implement UNDRIP, asking our government to be responsible and accountable the provisions of the declaration.
  • We can fight for changing laws that give U.S. government say-so in regard to tribal land.

While we embrace the value of awareness, many of us want to take action! The actions you can take are to strategically spread awareness.  Publicize UNDRIP and invite people to get educated about it.  You can do this by posting this blog in your congregation’s newsletter.  Write your own blog about the UNDRIP and Doctrine of Discovery.  Share informational resources (such as the resource list below) with your congregation and on Facebook.  Research community organizations near you that work for Indigenous Rights and ask them how you can help.  Organize a discussion with your Social Justice group to reflect on social, institutional, and legislative forms of discrimination and be sure people are aware of this particular issue.  Utilize the Doctrine of Discovery Discussion Guide provided on the UUA website. Start a Social Justice group at your congregation. Attend UU Conferences such as the UU-UNO Spring Seminar and UUA General Assembly.  Call attention to this issue! Once people are aware they can encourage others to spread the news.

UNDRIP acknowledges the right of Indigenous people to exist as nations, so ask your local government about their relationship with Native American communities.  Work to end government marginalization of native people and to ensure that indigenous rights are institutionalized and legally binding.  Governments need to feel pressure to put this declaration into effect in consultation – with advice and direction – from Native governments.  Get informed and prepare for action.

They say one person can change the world…and they are right.  You only need one person to start a movement. 


Indian Law Resource Center – Justice for Indigenous Peoples

UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues

Report and Responsive Resolution from the Board on the Doctrine of Discovery

Kamila Jacob is the Youth Envoy Coordinator at the Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office.

About the Author
Gail Forsyth-Vail
Gail Forsyth-Vail is the Adult Programs Director in the UUA Faith Development Office. She is a Credentialed Religious Educator, Master’s Level, who served congregations for 22 years before coming to the UUA in 2008. The 2007 recipient of the Angus MacLean Award for Excellence in Religious Education, she has written or developed many religious education resources for UUs of all ages. She and her spouse, P. Stephen Vail, are proud and happy parents of three young adult Unitarian Universalists.

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