On May 4, 1493 Pope Alexander VI issued the Inter Caetera papal bull which called for non-Christian nations to be reduced and subjugated (“barbare nationes deprimantur”). On May 4, 2013, 200 years after our great Shawnee leader Tecumseh fell in battle on October 5, 1813, Dr. Debra Harry (Paiute Nation), Sharon Venne (Cree Nation, Treaty Six) and I saw two velum parchment originals of the papal bull at the General Archives of the Indies in Seville, Spain.
On May 4, 2016 I had the rare opportunity in St. Peter’s Square to call on Pope Francis to formally revoke that document. Our 20-plus years of effort to have that papal decree revoked as a document representative of a series of such documents is not a move toward what is being erroneously called “reconciliation.” It is a move toward decolonization and rectification. It is a move to end the domination language system that Pope Alexander VI directed at our non-Christian ancestors, our Original Free Nations, a language and legacy of devastation and oppression that is ongoing.
Given Pope Francis’s use of the concept of “Mother Earth” in his statement Ladauto Si, his statement of contrition in Bolivia for the terrible treatment of Original Nations by the Catholic Church and other colonizing forces, and his various calls for reform, Pope Francis is the perfect candidate for a revocation of the series of papal bulls of domination. Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, at the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, met with our group for two hours, a delegation from various Original Nations that had gathered during the Long March to Rome to discuss the ongoing call for a revocation of the papal bulls, which began with the Indigenous Law Institute’s efforts back in 1992. The Long March to Rome gathering convened in Florence and Rome from April 30 to May 4, 2016.
After saying a brief prayer in our Lenape language I said to the pope: “Pope Francis this is a book that I’ve written about the papal bull Inter Caetera from May 4 1493. Today is the 523rd year since that document was issued which called for the domination of our Original Nations and Peoples from Great Turtle Island and all non-Christian nations throughout the planet. That papal document has been extremely destructive to our nations and peoples for more than five centuries. We’re calling on you to formally revoke that document so you can release the spirit of that negative energy that the Vatican placed on us.” Pope Francis responded, “I will read it.” I continued, “Thank you. This is a statement we’ve created. I want to thank you so much for agreeing to meet with us.”
It has been 24 years since Birgil Kills Straight, a traditional Headman of the Oglala Lakota Nation, and I began our effort to have the pope revoke the papal bull. Birgil arranged for us to travel with Italian allies on a speaking tour of cities in Northern Italy. Now we have formally delivered that call for revocation directly to the heart and mind of Pope Francis, who has taken the name of St. Francis of Assisi, someone who identified with reverence for nature and the animals.
Birgil and I went to Assisi, Italy in the mid-1990s when Birgil was asked to be part of the drafting team for the preamble to the Earth Charter. He was invited by Father Perzywozny from Poland to sit with eminent scholars in that drafting team. Birgil brought with him an essay he wrote about Oglala Lakota ceremonies and spirituality, explaining by implication that the Catholic Church had not succeeded in attempting to destroy the language and ceremonial traditions of the Oglala Lakota People. And by means of those two aspects of their existence they still communicate with the animals just as Francis of Assisi is said to have done. Father Perzywozny was rather unreceptive to that message, yet the scientists were not because they understood the dire condition in which we now find Mother Earth and how critically important respectful Earth centered teachings are at this time. Birgil Kills Straight then went on to the Vatican and met with Pope John Paul II.
In his statement Laudato Si (Encyclical Letter on care for our common home), Pope Francis stated: “Although it is true that we Christians have at times incorrectly interpreted the Scriptures, nowadays we must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures.” There is no better example of the Church’s claim that Christendom has a right of absolute domination over non-Christians than the wording found in the papal bulls of Pope Nicholas V. He exhorted King Alfonso of Portugal to invade, capture, vanquish, and subdue, all Saracens, pagans and other enemies of Christ, to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery, and take away all their possessions and property.” The papal bulls of 1493 contain the same language system of domination and dehumanization. It uses words of empire, and domination, subjection, reduction, subjugation, and we are now living in the dire circumstances of that horrible language system.
We proposed to Archbishop Tomasi that an international conference take place with an ongoing dialogue specifically focused on the themes of domination and dehumanization, and a detailed examination of the dominating language found in the papal bulls. I told him “with respect, there is much of your own history that you do not know.” And I asked him whether he had ever read the papal bulls in question. He said that he had not. I then informed him in great detail as to the nature of those documents.
I told Archbishop Tomasi that once such ideas and behaviors have been institutionalized in laws and policies, the Church cannot simply invoke Vatican II, for example, and not look back and take responsibility for the wreckage left in the wake of those papal bulls of domination. As far as the Indigenous Law Institute is concerned, this work is not about “reconciliation,” a euphemism for the domination language system which furthers the colonizers’ goal of our assimilating and incorporating us into the body politic of the state. The papal bulls and the boarding and residential schools of domination were intended to incorporate us and absorb us into their colonial system. The papal bulls demonstrate a basic untruth found in the concept of “truth and reconciliation”: The historical record shows no “good relations” or “prior friendship” with the oppressors which needs to be “restored.” Thus, below the surface is the hidden meaning, “truth and untruth.”
This work is about the liberation of our nations and peoples from the behavioral patterns and language system of domination. It is about restoration and healing for our nations and peoples based on our love of and spiritual connection to the land, our languages, our sacred and ceremonial places, and our original free and independent existence as nations extending back before a Western notion of time.
Steven Newcomb (Shawnee, Lenape) is co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, and author of Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery(Fulcrum, 2008). He is a producer of the documentary movie, “The Doctrine of Discovery: Unmasking the Domination Code,” directed and produced by Sheldon Wolfchild (Dakota), with narration by Buffy Sainte-Marie (Cree). The movie can be ordered from 38Plus2Productions.com.