The dark side of discovery


This is the third in a series of EQUITY BLOGS that explores the contexts of longstanding disparities in the health and well-being of King County residents. In addition to helping us understand the root causes of some disparities, the blogs show how tightly history is woven into our lives and our children’s futures. They also acknowledge the rich variability of responses within and across groups and generations, from strength and resilience to lasting harm embedded in policy and everyday life.

“Since the time that human beings offered thanks for the first sunrise, sovereignty has been an integral part of Indigenous peoples' daily existence. With the original instructions from the Creator, we realize our responsibilities. Those are the laws that lay the foundation of our society. These responsibilities manifest through our ceremonies … Sovereignty is that wafting thread securing the components that make a society. Without that wafting thread, you cannot make a rug. Without that wafting thread, all you have are un-joined, isolated components of a society. Sovereignty runs through the vertical strands and secures the entire pattern. That is the fabric of Native society.”

Ingrid Washinawatok El-Issa

Until recent decades, American schoolchildren were taught that their country exists due to the efforts of conscientious, forward-thinking pioneers who crossed an ocean and braved the wilderness to escape religious persecution. Even today, when some teachers encourage discussion of America’s discomfiting legacies of slavery, genocide, racism, exclusion, and forced family separation, many students find it hard to understand how a nation – newly founded on the principles of equality, freedom, and justice – could have justified the perpetration of suffering among those who were different from and less powerful than they were. Believe it they must, though, as the actions of our country’s forebears are well documented, and vestiges of the suffering they caused persist in many of today’s communities. 

 To learn how the Founders justified their actions, we need to go back more than 5 centuries to the Doctrine of Discovery, a tenet of international law that originated with a 1452 decree by Pope Nicholas V that “specifically sanctioned and promoted the conquest, colonization, and exploitation of non-Christian territories and peoples.” The decree provided papal justification for Portugal’s continuation of the West African slave trade, granting rights to “…capture, vanquish and subdue the Saracens, pagans and other enemies of Christ, and put them into perpetual slavery and to take all their possessions and their property.”

 Sanctioning slavery was just the first step. A second papal decree issued in 1493, after Christopher Columbus’s first journey to the New World under the flag of Spain, specified “that the ‘discovered’ people be ‘subjugated and brought to the faith itself.’” Almost 3 and a half centuries later, the United States Supreme Court embedded this justification in national law with a unanimous 1823 ruling (in Johnson v. M’Intosh) affirming that these “rights of discovery,” originally bestowed on European sovereigns, had been transferred to the United States:

“The United States, then, have unequivocally acceded to that great and broad rule by which its civilized inhabitants now hold this country. They hold and assert in themselves, the title by which it was acquired. They maintain, as all others have maintained, that discovery gave an exclusive right to extinguish the Indian title of occupancy, either by purchase or conquest; and gave also a right to such a degree of sovereignty, as the circumstances of the people would allow them to exercise.”

This legal precedent – based on the rationale “that the ‘heathen’ indigenous peoples of the Americas are ‘subordinate to the first Christian discoverer,’ or its successor” – laid the groundwork for Manifest Destiny, the popular belief that the United States was preordained to expand its territory across North America without regard for the Native peoples who already lived there.

 For the territory that became Washington state, Spain’s claim was succeeded by those of Great Britain and the United States, which ultimately inherited the “rights of discovery.” In a nod to principles of informed consent, the king and queen of Spain ordered that those working under their flag read a statement aloud – in Latin and Spanish – to any Indigenous peoples they discovered. It read in part

“But if you do not do this [accept Spanish rule], and maliciously make delay in it, I certify to you that, with the help of God, we shall powerfully enter into your country, and shall make war against you in all ways and manners that we can, and shall subject you to the yoke and obedience of the Church and of their highnesses; we shall take you, and your wives, and your children, and shall make slaves of them, and as such shall sell and dispose of them as their highnesses may command; and we shall take away your goods, and shall do you all the mischief and damage that we can, as to vassals who do not obey, and refuse to receive their lord, and resist and contradict him: and we protest that the deaths and losses which shall accrue from this are your fault, and not that of their highnesses, or ours, nor of these cavaliers who come with us.”

This glimpse of our past in no way justifies the atrocities committed in the service of Discovery. It does, however, set the context for forthcoming posts about historical traumas experienced by local populations and the resilience that develops as communities confront and deal with those traumas.