the basis of the so-called Doctrine of Discovery, which shapes U.S.
Indian policy to this day and haunts Indians' well-being, the group
Nina Berglund, 18, hopes to discuss archaic
papal decrees with Vatican officials in Rome. (photo by David
Joles - Star Tribune)
Mitch Walking Elk and his students are unlikely Vatican visitors.
But if all goes as planned, they will meet with Vatican officials
in May with a plea: "Rescind the historic papal decrees that justified
the domination of native peoples."
These 500-year-old decrees are at the center of a surprising
flurry of faith-based activism and interest in the Twin Cities,
home to one of the nation's largest urban American Indian populations.
Critics charge they formed the basis of the so-called Doctrine of
Discovery, which asserted that the people and wealth of non-Christian
lands belonged to those who "discovered" them.
Its legacy shapes federal Indian policy to this day and haunts
Indians' well-being, they say.
"There's so many people who don't know about this," said Akili
Day, one of the St. Paul high school students preparing for the
trip. "Even if we are a small group, we can shed light on it and
what it has done to us."
Although a group of national Indian elders met Vatican leaders
in 2016 to ask that the decrees be rescinded, Walking Elk's teens
and parents are expected to be the first such youthful delegation.
Their journey comes as a growing wave of national Protestant
denominations, including Presbyterians, Methodists and the Evangelical
Lutheran Church in America, have repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery.
In Minnesota, their churches have been offering related workshops
and supporting Indian efforts to make change.
Johnson, who is of Oglala Lakota and Northern Cheyenne descent,
along with her daughter Nina Berglund, 18, will travel to
Rome to meet Pope Francis this spring. Here, Johnson was seen
holding up a web page dedicated to a group of Native Americans
who traveled to Rome in 2016 to meet with the pope.(photo
by David Joles - Star Tribune)
Jim Bear Jacobs, who oversees a St. Paul Interfaith Network
program called Healing Minnesota Stories, said he's led dozens of
such discussions, in addition to bus tours of sacred indigenous
sites. Said Jacobs: "So many people are talking about this."
A quick history lesson: Several papal decrees, known as "bulls,"
were issued in the 1400s to legitimize the domination and destruction
of non-Christian people. Those decrees, embraced by the early European
colonizers of the Americas, formed the basis of U.S. Indian policy,
which allowed the government to seize Indian land, remove its people,
and control their personal and property rights, said Jacobs.
For example, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a landmark 1823
case that the titles of land discovered and conquered belonged to
the conquering nation. American Indians only had the right to occupy
it. As recently as 2005, the Supreme Court referred to this Doctrine
of Discovery in a ruling against the Oneida Indian nation of New
York, advocates note.
Walking Elk said a more recent example of indigenous rights
being superseded by federal or corporate rights is the Keystone
Pipeline running near Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North
Dakota. Centuries of being treated as second-class citizens, or
worse, has left a profound mark on Indian peoples, he said.
Last week, Walking Elk and about a dozen students and some parents
gathered in a classroom at Guadalupe Alternative Programs in St.
Paul, where he teaches indigenous ceremonies. The smell of burning
sage drifted into the classroom from a healing circle down the hall.
The group got a trip update before joining the ceremony.
The need to heal underlies the Vatican trip, students said.
"We live with historical trauma; it's in our DNA," said Nina
Berglund. "It's from the taking of our land, the killing of our
people. Every day we see it in suicides, drug and alcohol addiction,
We're still trying to deal with it."
Her mother, Dianna Johnson, nodded slowly.
"I'm 45 years old, and this is all new to me," Johnson said,
holding back tears. "Not knowing who I am. Not knowing my language.
Not knowing my culture. You're made to feel you're less. It's passed
in your blood, generation after generation."
What do they hope to get out of the trip?
"Hope," Deondre White Face quickly responded.
Steve Newcomb was among the first American Indians to seize
upon the idea of addressing the pope, more than 20 years ago. The
co-founder of the indigenous Law Institute in California, he was
part of the Long March to Rome in 2016, in which he and a group
of elders briefly met Pope Francis and then with members of the
Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.
Newcomb worked with Sheldon Wolfchild, a Minnesota filmmaker,
to create a documentary on the Doctrine of Discovery in 2014. The
film has emerged as a key organizing tool in churches.
"I've been working with the United Methodist Church for four
years, under the guidance of Bishop [Bruce] Ough," said Wolfchild.
"Christian churches are stepping to the plate, showing this film
all over the country."
Earlier this month, for example, St. Paul-Reformation Lutheran
Church in St. Paul and First Universalist Church in Minneapolis
held events about the doctrine.
American Nina Berglund, 18, will travel to Rome to meet Pope
Francis this spring, along with her mother Dianna Johnson
and a group of other local American Indians. (photo by David
Joles - Star Tribune)
Walking Elk's group, meanwhile, is hosting its biggest fundraiser
this weekend, featuring top Indian musicians Sunday afternoon at
First Universalist Church.
Whether all the organizing changes minds at the Vatican is unknown.
But Massimo Faggioli, a Vatican expert at Villanova University in
Pennsylvania, said popes are far more likely to issue a public apology
for past moral errors than rescind an official decree.
"It's extremely rare," said Faggioli. "It doesn't mean the pope
doesn't want to change a previous policy. But they never say these
doctrines are wrong. They issue a new one that quietly replaces
the old one."
Regardless, this unusual group will head to St. Peter's Square
in early May. Walking Elk said a meeting is arranged with a Vatican
official, and they'll continue to press for rescinding the decrees.
"Apologies are a good place to start," said Walking Elk. "But
what about a new papal bull?"