Candace Ducheneaux, a Lakota Indian with gray-streaked hair and a blunt, feisty spirit, sat down to a metal picnic table at a playground in this dusty, rundown town, one of America’s poorest—the tribal headquarters of the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation.
“I was born down under the water there, under the Missouri River Bridge,” said the 66-year-old Ducheneaux.
“A little after, in 1958, was when they flooded our land.”
“They” were the Army Corps of Engineers. The land was the low-lying, tree-filled valley where the old agency, or reservation center, used to sit, land that so many Lakota in Cheyenne River called home. With abundant resources and easy access to water, the valley was condemned and taken by eminent domain.
In its stead, the Oahe Dam, authorized by the federal Flood Control Act of 1944, was created. One of the largest artificial reservoirs in the nation, the dam covers 150,000 acres and provides electricity and irrigation to a large section of the north central United States.
Those on the reservation old enough to remember still seethe over the federal government’s power play.
“There was nothing we could do about it,” Ducheneaux said. “My father was a lead negotiator for the tribe, and when he went into those talks, he began the negotiations on a somber note. He said, ‘This is not a happy occasion. We are here to participate in the gutting of our reservation.’”
Ducheneaux told the story to illustrate a key point of injustice her people live with, but more generally, the heartache they endure. This kind of Native American pain isn’t news, of course. Most of us know something of the poor treatment of Native Americans in this country—the history of imperialism, the suffering and suicide that exists in Indian country today.
But from deep within that history, a key force is surfacing anew: a dehumanizing rationale for conquerors and those who eventually ruled the country with roots in papal bulls issued in the 1400s.
In 1493, one such bull, the pronouncement Inter Caetera, granted Spain “full and free power, authority, and jurisdiction of every kind” over non-Christian people in the new land. It declared that “the Catholic faith and the Christian religion be exalted and be everywhere increased and spread, that the health of souls be cared for and that barbarous nations be overthrown and brought to the faith itself.”
This bull and others like it gave license to the domination of Native peoples, arguing that because they were not Christian, they lacked human rights. Instead of being encountered like human beings, Native people were said to have been “discovered,” like some new species of animal.
In time, the bulls grew into an international norm known as the “Doctrine of Discovery,” which played a crucial role in justifying European claims in the Americas, and inspired U.S. western expansion.
In 1823, it worked its way into U.S. law when Chief Justice John Marshall wrote that the “principle” of discovery legitimated the government’s “ultimate dominion” in the Supreme Court case Johnson v. M’Intosh. The decision severely limited the rights of Native Americans, denying them sovereignty, and went on to become the cornerstone of federal Indian law. Advocates say this legal history continues to hamstring Indian country.
But beyond the legal realm, the doctrine and its history—interwoven so closely with Christianity itself—has done the most damage by torturing the hearts and minds of Native American people.
Those in Cheyenne River contend that the mentality it produced is the key to understanding past and present pain, that it continues to reach out and suppress and dehumanize.
They paint a picture of shocking cruelty, crushing poverty and intergenerational grief. Residents aware of the history say that the Doctrine of Discovery is alive and well in Cheyenne River. Others simply tell their stories.
They are stories that reflect terribly on America as a “Christian nation,” and raise contemporary questions for Americans and Catholics alike: How do we take stock, morally, of our past and present? Given where we’ve been, where do we go from here?
Deep psychological wounds hammer life in Cheyenne River today. The wounds may appear fresh, but are in fact quite old—originally inflicted at a time when the doctrine and its thinking permeated the effort to deal with America’s “Indian problem.”
Marcella Le Beau, a Lakota tribal elder living in Eagle Butte, South Dakota, appealed to her own family history to explain this reality, recalling her great-grandfather, Joseph Four Bear, who signed the Treaty of Fort Laramie of 1868, and how the process of being forced onto a reservation demoralized her ancestors.
Following a period of war between the U.S. and Great Plains tribes over routes to gold fields in Montana (the routes crossed tribal land), the Fort Laramie Treaty established the Great Sioux Reservation, stretching across half of South Dakota and a small part of modern-day Nebraska. It guaranteed Lakota proprietorship of the Black Hills, which they hold sacred, as well as hunting rights in South Dakota, Wyoming and Montana.
But some viewed the treaty negatively. Its provisions were dense and complicated; the lead-up to its signing was tense and filled with violence. Furthermore, a semi-nomadic people were now geographically contained. Le Beau believes that her great-grandfather signed the treaty “under duress.”
Soon after its signing, key provisions were broken. Such was the case when gold was discovered in the Black Hills, and prospectors crossed onto reservation land, and war ensued. In 1877, the U.S. took the Black Hills, which included Mount Rushmore.
Into the mountain’s granite, huge sculptures of four U.S. presidents would be carved, creating a memorial that opened in 1941.
In 1889, more land was lost when Congress voted to partition the Great Sioux Reservation into five smaller reservations. Then, in December 1890, with tension building and the Ghost Dance phenomenon—a brand of mysticism that foresaw a new age of power for American Indians—unnerving white America, the revered Lakota warrior Sitting Bull was killed by tribal police.
Responding to news of his death, The Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer wrote: “The Whites, by law of conquest, by justice of civilization, are masters of the American continent, and the best safety of the frontier settlements will be secured by the total annihilation of the few remaining Indians.” The author of the story, L. Frank Baum, later became famous, penning The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
Two weeks after Sitting Bull’s death, the Lakota were dealt a crushing blow when U.S. forces massacred Native American men, women and children at Wounded Knee River on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota.
“I did not know then how much was ended,” Lakota holy man Black Elk later wrote. “When I look back now from this high hill of my old age, I can still see the butchered women and children lying heaped and scattered all along the crooked gulch as plain as when I saw them with eyes still young. And I can see that something else died there in the bloody mud, and was buried in the blizzard. A people’s dream died there. It was a beautiful dream.”
“The nation’s hoop is broken and scattered,” he wrote. “There is no center any longer, and the sacred tree is dead.”
Le Beau, whose Lakota name is Pretty Rainbow Woman, put the sad trail of history into human context.
After signing the Fort Laramie Treaty, her great-grandfather Four Bear “was compelled to live on the northeast corner of our reservation, which is now Blackfoot community. They built him a home, and he had to live there, and he could no longer hunt for his people, or provide for them.”
“To me, that must have been very humiliating,” she said. “For a man, to take away what he was proud of doing, providing for his family. … He had to stand in line for rations.”
“He lived out his life there,” Le Beau said. “And I have a letter that was written by my mother in 1920 … and in that letter, she said my grandfather never so much as danced Indian until the day he died.”
She asked, “If you can’t be who you are, then who are you?”
Editor’s note: It may seem like papal statements from 500 years ago are ancient history. But Native American activists and scholars insist that Catholicism’s past continues to affect the present. Papal bulls from the 1400s condoned the conquest of the Americas and other lands inhabited by indigenous people. The papal documents led to an international norm called the Doctrine of Discovery, which dehumanized non-Christians and legitimized their suppression by nations around the world, including by the United States. Now Native Americans say the church helped commit genocide and refuses to come to terms with it. This is Part One of a six-part series on the legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery. Republished with permission.