Unsettling Truths

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Book Review: “Unsettling Truths: The Ongoing, Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery” by Mark Charles and Soong-Chan Rah

Unsettling Truths is an examination of the impact of the “Doctrine of Discovery” that goes beyond a survey and into the consequences of this doctrine across theological sociological, and historical lines. 

The Doctrine of Discovery is a deeply problematic idea in the history of the world, and Mark Charles, a Navajo/Dutch man notes at the beginning that the problems start with the name. “You cannot discovery lands already inhabited” (13). The Doctrine of Discovery itself as a historical reality emerged from European powers as they sought to consolidate power overseas. Tied with a number of papal bulls, this doctrine provided legal precedents that continue to govern in some ways how we view native rights (15). Of course, the doctrine is also deeply rooted in views that see Europeans as superior to other peoples, for it undermines the rights of native peoples and implies that their claims to the land and even life are not germane to the “discovery” of those same lands by European powers. 

Discovery as a kind of founding belief in the United States helped guide the shape of the country, from the Constitution to current court cases as well. This may seem a sweeping claim, but the authors support it with data. For example, the Doctrine of Discovery is cited in court cases from 1954, 1985, and 2005. In the latter, City of Sherrill, New York v. Oneida Indian Nation of New York, the doctrine of discovery is explicitly cited as reason to deny the Oneida Indian Nation sovereignty over land they had purchased, despite it being land that was, in part, to have been given to their people by treaty with the United States. Moreover, the 2005 opinion cited precedent from an 1823 opinion in which the Native tribes were called “savages” (though the 2005 opinion omitted the term) and said that the increased value of the land because it was converted from “wilderness” into cities was another reason cited to rule against the Oneida Indian Nation of New York (126-127). The implication is, of course, that when Native groups owned the land, it was “wilderness” ( = not civilized/savage) but now that it has been turned into cities ( = civilization/Western), it is more valuable and, more importantly, able to be determined by U.S. courts instead of treaties. The repeated breaking of treaties and use of courts to bolster non-Native American ownership of land and property should be something to alarm any American, especially Christians who are taught to treat others as they would be treated.

The authors also bring to light many practical applications that are derived from the historical and modern background in the book. For example, one early chapter on “The Power of Narratives and the Imagination” goes over how false narratives of discovery can help construct realities of institutional, internalized, and externalized power imbalances. These power imbalances play out in our prison systems, in our courts, and in everyday life, as the authors demonstrate time and again throughout the book. 

Unsettling Truths is a good introduction to the problems with the Doctrine of Discovery and, more importantly, how that doctrine has impacted society to this day. 

Disclaimer: I was provided with a copy of the book for review by the publisher. I was not required to give any specific kind of feedback whatsoever.

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