On November 3, 2016, a ritual burning of the Doctrine of Discovery (the European legal concept that justified the dispossession of native lands by Europeans) was held at the Oceti Sakowin Camp in North Dakota.1 Episcopalian Reverend John Floberg, who was acting at the invitation of the Standing Rock Sioux, held a copy of the Doctrine of Discovery (presumably the Papal Bull titled “Inter Caetera” issued by Pope Alexander VI on May 4, 1493) and invited a committee of native elders to, if so moved, authorize the burning of the document. After a series of speeches and rituals, the document was burned to the applause and cheering of hundreds of native and nonnative water protectors (as many prefer to be called over “protestor”) and about five hundred clergy members. This interfaith campaign has gathered steam in the last five years and calls on churches and governments to renounce the Doctrine of Discovery. The campaign has resulted in official pronouncements from the World Council of Churches, Episcopal House of Bishops, Quakers, United Methodist Church, and Unitarian Universalists. The effort by indigenous activists received its most international notoriety when the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (where I have been conducting fieldwork since the first session in 2002) declared it the official theme of the Eleventh Session of the Permanent Forum in 2012.
I examine the anti–Doctrine of Discovery campaign at the UN, particularly the Eleventh Session, and other related contexts for two reasons. First, the movement highlights the challenges and possibilities of what I call Pan-American indigenous activism because it has been embraced by a diverse group of indigenous activists from Latin America and North America, and it frames historic grievances in a uniquely pan-hemispheric way. Although it focuses on Papal Bulls generated under Iberian colonialism and what is now Latin America, it traces the connections and continuities of the colonialist and [End Page 823] imperialist ideologies that underpinned both English and Spanish aggressions in the Americas. Second, I argue that an examination of this movement is particularly apt in the context of the analytic possibilities and limitations of the concept of settler colonialism across the indigenous Americas. In the words of Patrick Wolfe, “settler colonialism destroys to replace.”2 This destruction and its aftermath create a unique dilemma for activists and others who attempt to redress it. This is the dilemma of (perceived) irreversibility—the larger (and more destructive) the damage, the less practical and realizable redress seems.
I demonstrate the ways indigenous activists in the United States and Latin America strategically use institutions like the UN and the news media in unexpected ways to create what Kevin Bruyneel, focusing exclusively on the United States, calls a “third space of sovereignty” that “resides neither simply inside nor outside the American political system but rather exists on these very boundaries, exposing both the practices and the contingencies of American colonial rule.”3 Indigenous participants have used the symbolic capital of the United Nations to put pressure on national governments and corporations that are active in their territories and communities in a way that transcends the narrow mandate the United Nations gives to the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (and other venues for indigenous participation within the UN system). The Dakota Access Pipeline case is a recent example of an emergent Pan-American indigenous activism that to some extent is lodged in global governmental institutions but also defies the constraints inherently accompanying this positioning.
Settler colonialism describes a process that unmistakably has played out differently, if at all, in Latin America and North America. Surely there has been “destruction and replacement” in both hemispheres during the colonial period, but it is widely acknowledged that the North American process was oriented less toward exploitation of native labor than toward the removal of native people to make way for English settlers and other imported and forced laborers from the Old World. The process of mestizaje, facilitated by a Spanish colonial system reliant on organized native communities, resulted in modern Latin American societies that as a general rule (with plenty of exceptions) regard themselves as being the product of a blending of European and American cultures and peoples...