October 10, 2011
Columbus Day: The "Doctrine of Discovery"
The celebration of Columbus Day is controversial in many quarters. Professor Robert Williams' article, Columbus's Legacy: Law as an Instrument of Racial Discrimination Against Indigenous Peoples' Rights of Self-Determination, 8 Ariz. J. Int'l & Comp. L. 51, available on ssrn, is an exploration of that controversy important to ConLaw perspectives.
Williams conects the three core principles of constitutional Indian Law - - - the Congressional Plenary Power doctrine, which holds that Congress exercises a plenary authority in Indian affairs; the Diminished Tribal Sovereignty doctrine, which holds that Indian tribes still retain those aspects of their inherent sovereignty not expressly divested by treaty or statute, or implicitly divested by virtue of their status; and the Trust doctrine, which holds that in exercising its broad discretionary authority in Indian affairs, Congress and the Executive are charged with the responsibilities of a guardian acting on behalf of its dependent Indian wards - - -to the medieval legal intellectual origins of these foundational doctrines that animated Columbus' ability to "claim" the "discovered" lands of the Americas for European sovereigns.
The article is an excellent exploration of these foundational doctrines. Williams discusses the first "Indian case," Johnson v. McIntosh, written by Justice Marshall in 1823, in which the Court considered a dispute of title between persons who had received their title from Indians and those who had received their title from the United States several decades later. Williams explains the outcome:
The Court held in Johnson that Indian tribes had no power to give title to lands to private individuals recognizable in a United States court. Marshall's opinion for the Court in Johnson relied exclusively and directly upon the medievally-derived legal tradition of European Christian Crusading conquest and denial of non-Christian infidel peoples' rights brought to the New World by Columbus. . . . Under this doctrine, recognized and enforced as part of the Law of Nations by the European colonizing nations, discovery of territory in the New World gave the discovering European nation, in Marshall's words, “an exclusive right to extinguish the Indian title of occupancy, either by purchase or by conquest.” England's title to North America, as Marshall recognized, was asserted under this Doctrine of Discovery, and therefore had devolved to the United States as a result of its victory in the Revolutionary War. Thus, Marshall reasoned that the non-Indian plaintiffs' purchases of lands directly from the Indian tribes, without the approval or sanction of either the original discovering European nation, England, or its successor in interest, the United States, could not be sustained as valid in a United States court of law.
Writing in the quincentennial year of the Columbus "discovery," Williams noted that it was important to confront this continuing legacy of legal doctrines such as "discovery" and their theoretical underpinnings in Christian dominance and racism in order to realize our "contemporary concerns of creating a multicultural society of equal law and justice for all peoples, regardless of their race, cultural or religious beliefs and practices."
Good reading for Columbus Day!
[image: "The Landing of Columbus, 1492, from Library of Congress, via]
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