Doctrine of Discovery

The Doctrine of Discovery refers to the religious and legal justification used by Europe’s colonial powers to claim lands occupied by indigenous peoples, seize their property and forcibly convert or enslave them. The Doctrine has its roots in 15th century papal edicts granting Spain and Portugal permission to seize foreign lands as long as no baptized Christians had a prior claim. The “Discovery Doctrine” was put into U.S. law through a series of 19th Century Supreme Court decisions. It still applies today.

There is no single document known as the “Doctrine of Discovery.” Its roots are found in papal edicts and other Church documents and statements that collectively have come to be called the Doctrine of Discovery. A number of religious denominations and faith communities have begun to acknowledge the injustice caused by the Doctrine, and have made formal statements repudiating it. The Catholic Church has issued several statements and apologies to Native people, but has not one specifically for repudiating the Doctrine. Native people continue to seek a more explicit repudiation from the Catholic Church.

A Brief History
Key documents and statements where the Doctrine of Discovery was referred to, including Romanus Pontifex (1455) and Inter Caetera (1493).

Denominational Statements
Formal statements and other information from several religious denominations and faith communities repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery.

Impact on U.S. Law
Summary of how the Discovery Doctrine has been imbedded in U.S. law.

Fact Sheets
Documents created in preparation for the 2014 SPIN Fall Series: Doctrine of Discovery: Acknowledgment, Dialogue, and Response.

Video: Doctrine of Discovery

  • A documentary film, produced by filmmaker Sheldon Wolfchild (Lower Sioux Indian Community) and his film company 38 Plus 2 Productions. Healing Minnesota Stories has been partnering with Wolfchild to host film screenings and dialogues about the Doctrine. The film is now is publicly released and available for purchase. A trailer is available on his website, as well as information on how to purchase the DVD.

Other Videos

Books and Articles