We Don't Talk About That
We Don't Talk About That

We Don't Talk About That

When remembering is painful, but necessary.
December 1 st 2015
Appears in Winter 2015

In the summer of 2003 I moved with my family back to Dineteh, the land of my father's ancestors, located in the Southwest United States between Mount Blanca, Mount Taylor, San Francisco Peaks, and Mount Hesperus. Today this land is better known as the Navajo Reservation.

I was born in this area, in a hospital located in a mission compound alongside an Indian boarding school. When you pass through the tunnel leading to the campus of this mission to the Navajo and Zuni people, you are greeted by a large sign that reads, "Now the Lord has given us room. We shall flourish in the land. Gen. 26:22."

The governments, churches, and people of the United States of America and Canada do not talk about the Doctrine of Discovery. We have removed it from our common memory.

In 1896, the first missionaries from their denomination's "Board of Heathen Missions" arrived on the outskirts of a budding railroad town, known as Gallup, which was located in the territory of New Mexico. The United States of America was nearing the end of an unprecedented period of westward expansion. Through military force, the building of railroads, and the signing and breaking of Indian treaties, the United States was near completing its self-proclaimed "Manifest Destiny" of ruling this continent from "sea to shining sea."

Only thirty years earlier, General Carlton gave orders to Kit Carson and seven hundred of his soldiers to force our Navajo people to surrender so we could be removed from this area and relocated to a barren strip of land hundreds of miles away in the eastern section of the territory. It was through bloody, violent, and genocidal acts of war that this land was cleared to make room for the approaching onslaught of white settlers, prospectors, soldiers, and missionaries.

But we don't talk about that.

This unjust and dehumanizing history has largely been forgotten, and even when it is mentioned it is not connected in any direct way to the missions, towns, and people who are living there today.

Why does this mission reference Genesis 26? And why did the founding missionaries claim God's leading and divine provision for a piece of land that was never given, but rather violently taken?

The answer to that question lies in the selective memory of the people from both the United States and Canada.

There is a broad misconception that the history of Turtle Island began with the "discovery" of this continent by European explorers like Christopher Columbus and Jacques Cartier.

Every year on the second Monday of October, the United States celebrates Columbus Day. There is a statue of Christopher Columbus in Washington, DC, located to the north of the US Capitol building that reads: "To the memory of Christopher Columbus whose high faith and indomitable courage gave to mankind a new world."

There is another statue in Grant Park in Chicago that enshrines Christopher Columbus with the label "Discoverer of America." It also celebrates his words spoken on October 12, 1492: "By the Grace of God and in the Name of Her Majesty Queen Isabella, I am taking possession of these lands."

Likewise there are statues and plaques located throughout Canada and France, like the one in Montreal that reads: "To Jacques Cartier, born in Saint-Malo, December 1st, 1491. Sent by François Ier to discover Canada in April 20th, 1534. Reaching the entrance of the Saint-Lawrence River, on July 16th of the same year. He took possession of the land on behalf of the king his master, and named it New-France."

Common sense tells us that you cannot discover and take possession of lands that are already inhabited. That process is more accurately described as stealing, conquering, or even ethnic cleansing.

But we don't talk about that.


Invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens and pagans whatsoever, and other enemies of Christ wheresoever placed, and the kingdoms, dukedoms, principalities, dominions, possessions, and all movable and immovable goods whatsoever held and possessed by them and to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery, and to apply and appropriate to himself and his successors the kingdoms, dukedoms, counties, principalities, dominions, possessions, and goods, and to convert them to his and their use and profit.

These are the words of Pope Nicholas V, written in 1452 in the papal bull Dum Diversas. This bull, along with others written between 1452 and 1493, became collectively known as the Doctrine of Discovery. In the Doctrine of Discovery, the church in Europe told the nations of Europe that wherever they went, whatever lands they found that were not ruled by Christian rulers, those people were less than human and the land was theirs for the taking. It was this doctrine that allowed European nations to colonize the continent of Africa and enslave the African people. It was also this Doctrine of Discovery that allowed Christopher Columbus and Jacques Cartier to land in a "new world" already inhabited by millions, and claim to have "discovered" it.

The notion that Europeans "discovered" Turtle Island is a racist colonial concept that assumes the dehumanization of aboriginal peoples.

But we don't talk about that.

How do we create common memory where so much government, institutional, church, and individual effort has been invested in consciously forgetting?

Unfortunately, the influence of the Doctrine of Discovery does not end there.

In 1763, King George issued a proclamation known as the Proclamation of 1763. In this proclamation he drew a line down the Appalachian Mountains and essentially told the colonists they no longer had the right of discovery of the Indian lands west of Appalachia. That right was now reserved solely for the crown.

This is one of the places where the histories of Canada and the United States split. The colonies located in what today is known as the United States were angered by this proclamation. They wanted to keep the right of "discovery" for themselves, and so a few years later they wrote a letter of protest. In this letter they stated:

He [King George] has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.

They went on in this same letter to address several other issues they had with the king, concluding with the following:

He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

They signed this letter on July 4, 1776.

Yes, the Declaration of Independence, which so eloquently states, "All men are created equal," thirty lines later goes on to dehumanize natives as "merciless Indian Savages." The document that in many ways founded the United States of America hinges on a very narrow definition of who is actually human.

The colonies located in what is now known as Canada accepted the Proclamation of 1763 and did not revolt against the crown. However, this did not mean the empty Indian lands to the west could not be "discovered." It merely meant that right belonged to Great Britain. Aboriginal people were still dehumanized, and our lands were still taken—it's just that the injustices were done in the name of the king instead of the colonists themselves.

In the founding documents of the United States of America and in the implicit racial bias of Canada, native peoples are defined as less than human and therefore are excluded from the broader group of "all."

But we don't talk about that.

In the United States, the issue and rights of "discovery" were crystallized with the following Supreme Court case ruling:

As they [European colonizing nations] were all in pursuit of nearly the same object, it was necessary, in order to avoid conflicting settlements, and consequent war with each other, to establish a principle, which all should acknowledge as the law by which the right of acquisition, which they all asserted, should be regulated as between themselves. This principle was, that discovery gave title to the government by whose subjects, or by whose authority, it was made, against all other European governments, which title might be consummated by possession. (US Supreme Court, Johnson v. M'Intosh [1823])

In 1823, the United States Supreme Court presided over a case brought by two men of European descent regarding a single piece of land. One bought the land from a native tribe, and the other bought it from the government. They wanted to know who legally owned it. In reviewing the case, the Supreme Court stated that according to the Doctrine of Discovery, Indians tribes only have the right of occupancy to land, while Europeans have the right of discovery, and therefore true title to the land. This case helped establish a legal precedent for land titles based on the dehumanizing understandings of the Doctrine of Discovery. Lest this seem like ancient history, we should note that this legal precedent, and the Doctrine of Discovery, was referenced by the United States Supreme Court as recently as 2005 (City of Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation of New York).

The histories of native peoples in both the United States and Canada are largely similar; discovery, expansion, bloody wars, stolen lands, broken treaties, residential/boarding schools, cultural genocide, dehumanization, and marginalization. If there is a difference, it seems only to be that the Canadian government, churches, and people are more passive- aggressive in their injustices while Americans are more explicit.

The United States sees itself as a City on a Hill with a self-proclaimed "Manifest Destiny," while Canadians tend to justify their expansion through economic benefits and solidifying their national identity. The United States developed the idea of Indian boarding schools with the explicit stated intention of "killing the Indian to save the man." Canada took that concept and built on it, making residential schools a formidable part of its national aboriginal policies.

Both nations have a history of expansion, economic opportunity, and aboriginal/Indian policies based on the implicit racial bias defined by the Doctrine of Discovery, which dehumanizes people of color.

But we don't talk about that.


I have traveled extensively throughout the United States and visited parts of Canada lecturing and speaking about the Doctrine of Discovery. I would estimate that less than 2 percent of the population from either nation has a knowledgeable understanding of it.

On June 11, 2008, from the floor of the House of Commons, in a speech that was broadcast throughout the country, Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper formally apologized to the First Nations people of Canada for that country's history of residential schools.

This apology was part of a settlement to a lawsuit brought against the government and the churches by residential school survivors. The settlement also set aside approximately $60 million for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. And while this apology and the resulting Truth and Reconciliation Commission dealt with the injustice of residential schools, it did not touch on the Doctrine of Discovery.

In the 1950s and 60s the United States had one of the deepest conversations on race in its history: the civil rights movement. However, the Doctrine of Discovery was not a part of that dialogue. In fact, one of the moral authorities used in that movement was the Declaration of Independence. So instead of discussing the fact that the United States was systemically racist down to its very foundations, including the Declaration of Independence, the public rhetoric affirmed America's foundations and merely encouraged people to live up to those ideals.

The governments, churches, and people of the United States of America and Canada do not talk about the Doctrine of Discovery.

We have removed it from our common memory. Instead we talk about our common ideals, or about our stated values for equality and justice.

Or we are just silent.

Throughout its history, the United States has worked hard to define racial identity to benefit the dominant white race. For people of African descent there was the one-drop rule: if you had one drop of African blood, you were black and could be enslaved. This rule existed because slaves were the free labor source of a growing nation. So they wanted that pool to be as large as possible. For natives the opposite was the case, which gave rise to the blood-quantum rule: if your blood was less than full, half, quarter, eighth, or sixteenth native (depending on the constituency), you were not native. This rule existed because these lands were "discovered" by Europeans. And since it was our lands they desired, the fewer natives there were, the easier it was to perpetuate the myth that the lands were empty.

Because of these understandings, the United States has been forced to acknowledge, face, and in some ways deal with its history of slavery—though unevenly and inadequately. But it has also allowed the nation to ignore, bury, and deny its unjust history against natives.

On December 19, 2009, President Obama signed House Resolution 3326, the 2010 Department of Defense Appropriation Act. On page forty-five of this sixty-seven-page bill, section 8113 is titled "Apology to Native People of the United States." What follows is a seven-bullet-point apology that mentions no specific tribe, no specific treaty, and no specific injustice. It basically says, "You had some nice land, our citizens didn't take it very politely, let's just call it our land and steward it together." And it ends with a disclaimer stating that nothing in this apology is legally binding.

To date, this apology has not been announced, publicized, or read by the White House or Congress.


Georges Erasmus, an aboriginal leader from Canada, once said,

Where common memory is lacking, where people do not share in the same past, there can be no real community. Where community is to be formed, common memory must be created.

Th is quote gets to the heart of both nations' problem with race. Our citizens do not share a common memory. People of white European ancestry remember a history of discovery, open lands, Manifest Destiny, endless opportunity, and exceptionalism, while communities of color, primarily those with African and indigenous roots, have the lived experience of stolen lands, broken treaties, slavery, boarding schools, segregation, cultural genocide, internment camps, and mass incarceration.

But how do we do it? How do we create common memory where so much government, institutional, church, and individual effort has been invested in consciously forgetting?

I recently attended the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Canada. And I applaud the progress that was made there, just like I applaud and honor the work of civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. But I also know the conversation must go deeper. The United States must find a way to talk about the fact that its very foundations are systemically racist and assume the dehumanization of people of color. And in Canada, the dialogue must extend beyond the limited legal parameter of residential schools. Neither nation can create a common memory until the Doctrine of Discovery is fully on the table. That won't happen until we intentionally decide to talk about it.

Mark Charles
Mark Charles

Mark Charles is a speaker, writer, and consultant who recently moved to Washington DC from the Navajo Reservation. The son of an American woman of Dutch heritage and a Navajo man, Mark seeks to understand the complexities of American history regarding race, culture, and faith in order to help forge a path of healing and reconciliation for the nation. He partners with numerous organizations to assist them in respectfully approaching, including, and working with native communities.


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