The Western Hemisphere was home to tens of millions of First Peoples when European settlers arrived, but less than a century later the number had dropped by 95 percent—a survival rate of one in 20.
This is just one of the heartbreaking statistics laid out in The Doctrine of Discovery: Unmasking the Domination Code, a documentary co-produced by ICTMN contributor and legal scholar Steven Newcomb (Shawnee, Lenape) and directed by Sheldon Wolfchild (Dakota).
About 50 people, including editors from Indian Country Today Media Network, gathered at the Fordham University School of Law for the screening of the hourlong film, based on Newcomb’s book Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery (Fulcrum Books, 2008). The documentary lays out in graphic detail the religious reasoning behind Christianity’s takeover and subjugation of the original inhabitants of Turtle Island, how that led to political justifications that were at their base economic, and how those themes continue to be played out today.
Muted but unmistakable gasps escaped audience members’ lips as the film’s narrators recited description after description of some of the atrocities that had been wrought in the name of “civilizing” the “savages”—or, as the Spaniards also called them, bestias (beasts)—deeds that would put ISIS to shame.
“Infants were torn from their mother’s breast and hacked to death in the presence of their parents, and the pieces thrown into the fire and in the water,” wrote a Dutch witness to a massacre of Lenape at the south end of Manhattan Island on February 25, 1643. “Other sucklings, being bound to small boards, were cut, stuck and pierced, and miserably massacred in a manner to move a heart of stone. Some were thrown into the river, and when the fathers and mothers endeavored to save them the soldiers would not let them come on land but made both parents and children drown.”
In the morning, he wrote, the soldiers returned triumphant, secure in the belief that they had done good Christian deeds. Today on that site sits the New York City branch of the National Museum of the American Indian.
That followed similar massacres, and hangings, and a long, well-known policy of assimilation and domination. It started with the papal bulls issued in the 1500s, especially the famous Doctrine of Discovery (Domination), the church’s justification for the subjugation of Indians and other non-Christians.
Both Newcomb and Wolfchild were on hand for the screening, which came just a few days before Pope Francis steps on the shores of Turtle Island for the first time, and on the eve of his planned canonization of Junípero Serra, who founded the California mission system.
A lively discussion ensued after the film, with audience members promising to keep in touch and continue to get the word out about the true history of the United States, Canada and Mexico. Longtime journalist and communications consultant Melissa Cornick both organized and moderated the event. Newcomb also acknowledged collaborator Birgil Kills Straight (Oglala Lakota), who was not in attendance but who he said was integral to the making of the film.
“The key thing about this film is that it is not about discovery, it’s about domination,” Newcomb said, adding that one book in particular, the 1917 work European Treaties Bearing on the History of the United States, edited by Frances Gardiner Davenport and published by the Carnegie Institute of Washington (available online at Google books), will make that clear.
“Stay with it and you’ll begin to understand the patterning,” he said. “It’s a road map, a methodology, for doing exactly what they’ve done.”