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The Doctrine of Discovery and Indigenous Peoples

By Robert J. Miller and Jacinta Ruru

Brasília - Líder da Nação Kayapó, Akyboro Kayapó, da Aldeia Moicaraku (PA), durante a 1ª Conferência Nacional dos Povos Indígenas. Valter Campanato/ABr, 2006. Creative Commons License.
Today is the United Nations International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. It is a day for action. An important part of this action must be to continue the work towards banishing racist international colonialism law including the Doctrine of Discovery. This Doctrine legitimated the notion that the first European country that discovered lands unknown to other Europeans could claim property and sovereign rights over Indigenous Peoples and their homelands. The Doctrine has been applied in countries around the world, including the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Brazil, and many African countries. All nations and peoples need to understand how this law developed; how it was used to denigrate Indigenous Peoples as human beings and then was used to steal their lands, assets, and rights; and how it has impacted Indigenous Peoples from the onset of colonization right up to 2012.

This year, the Doctrine of Discovery was the declared theme of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues meetings in New York. Representatives from many countries spoke about the impacts of the Doctrine. At this event, we along with others, including high profile indigenous leaders, presented a paper and asked that the Permanent Forum adopt some initial steps to begin the process of repudiating and reversing the six hundred year old Doctrine of Discovery:

  1. To adopt the Haudenosaunee, American Indian Law Alliance, and the Indigenous Law Institute conference room paper request for the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues to convene an Expert Group Meeting to create an international study of the Doctrine of Discovery and its effects on Indigenous Peoples, and to submit that study, along with recommendations, to the Permanent Forum in 2014.
  2. To advocate that all states of the world adopt the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as binding national law.
  3. To advocate that all states review their laws, regulations, and policies impacting Indigenous Peoples and to repeal laws, regulations, and policies which reflect the ethnocentric, feudal, and religious prejudices of the Doctrine of Discovery. Furthermore, states should undertake these reviews in full consultation with Indigenous Nations and Peoples and with their free, prior, and informed consent.
  4. To call on all states to educate their citizens in school curricula and by other means about the true and complete history of colonization and the application of the international law Doctrine of Discovery.
  5. To call on all churches to join with Indigenous Peoples in repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery and any role churches may have played in creating the Doctrine and in applying it against Indigenous Nations and Peoples. We recognize that several churches and church organizations have already done so: the Episcopal Church in 2009, the Anglican Church of Canada in 2010, and the World Council of Churches in 2012. We ask other churches to follow their lead.


Today offers an important opportunity to highlight the continued fictional nature of the Doctrine of Discovery especially to a wider global audience. For true, lasting reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples and colonial governments to occur, all citizens need to understand the complete history of colonization including the simple fact that in many countries Europeans arrived on lands already competently settled, owned, and governed by Indigenous Peoples.

Robert Miller is Professor of Law at Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland, Oregon. He serves as the chief justice for the Court of Appeals for the Grand Rone Community of Orego. He is an enrolled citizen of the Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma. Dr. Jacinta Ruru is Senior Lecturer at the University of Otago, and is of Ngati Raukawa (Waikato), Ngati Rangi and Pakeha descent. They are the authors of Discovering Indigenous Lands: The Doctrine of Discovery in the English Colonies with Larissa Behrendt and Tracey Lindberg.

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Recent Comments

  1. Simone Hardcastle

    I am from Australia, and while the government has tried to make amends for some of the past travesties enacted on the aboriginal people, it is hard to know what while ‘make it better’.

    A landmark case in the 90′s the ‘uninhabited’ status of the land, and we now have legislation for ‘land rights’ but what can legislation do that would be equitable for all races in the world, not just the original natives?

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