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87 CHAPTER 6 The Doctrine of Discovery, Manifest Destiny, and American Indians ROBERT J. MILLER The United States and most of the non-European world were colonized under an international legal principle known as the Doctrine of Discovery , which was used to justify European claims over the indigenous peoples and their territories. The doctrine provides that “civilized” and “Christian” Euro-Americans automatically acquired property rights over the lands of Native peoples and gained governmental, political, and commercial rights over the indigenous inhabitants just by showing up. This legal principle was shaped by religious and ethnocentric ideas of European and Christian superiority over other races and religions of the world. When Euro-Americans planted their flags and religious symbols in lands they claimed to have discovered, they were undertaking well-recognized legal procedures and rituals of discovery that were designed to establish their claim to the lands and peoples. The European colonists in North America, and later American colonial, state, and national governments, utilized the doctrine and its religious, cultural, and racial ideas of superiority over American Indians to make legal claims to the lands and property rights of Indians. For example, President Thomas Jefferson expressly ordered the Lewis and Clark expedition to use the principles of the Doctrine of Discovery to make American claims over Native peoples and lands across the continent.1 Later, the idea of American Manifest Destiny incorporated the Doctrine of Discovery to justify U.S. western expansion, and it continues to be used today to limit the governmental, sovereign, and property rights of American Indians and Indian nations. Ten elements constitute the doctrine as defined by the United States Supreme Court: 1. FIRST DISCOVERY. The first European country to discover land unknown to Europeans claimed that it automatically acquired property and sovereign rights over the lands and inhabitants. First discovery alone, however, only created an incomplete claim of title. 88 ROBERT J. MILLER 2. ACTUAL OCCUPANCY AND CURRENT POSSESSION. To turn first discovery into a complete title, a Euro-American country had to actually occupy and possess the newly found lands. This was usually done by building forts or settlements within a reasonable amount of time after a first discovery. 3. PREEMPTION/EUROPEAN TITLE. The discoverer acquired the right of preemption, that is, the exclusive right to buy the land from the indigenous owners. 4. INDIAN TITLE. Indian nations were considered to have lost the full ownership of their lands after first discovery. They only retained the right to occupy and use their lands, although those rights could last forever if they never consented to sell. 5. LIMITED TRIBAL SOVEREIGN AND COMMERCIAL RIGHTS. Indian nations were also considered to have lost some of their inherent sovereign powers such as the rights of free trade and international diplomatic relations . Thereafter, they were only supposed to trade and interact with their Euro-American discoverer. 6. CONTIGUITY. Europeans claimed significant amounts of land contiguous to their actual settlements in the New World. In fact, this element provided that the discovery of the mouth of a river created a claim over all the lands drained by that river, even if that was thousands of miles of territory. 7. TERRA NULLIUS. Terra nullius is land that is null, void, or empty. This element provides that if land was not occupied by anyone, or if it was occupied but was not being used or governed in a fashion that European legal systems recognized, then the land was considered empty. 8. CHRISTIANITY. Religion was a major aspect of justifying and applying the Doctrine of Discovery. Non-Christians were not deemed to have the same rights to land, sovereignty, and self-determination as Christians. 9. CIVILIZATION. Euro-Americans’ belief that God had directed them to bring “civilized” ways to indigenous peoples was an important part of the doctrine. 10. CONQUEST. First, the United States Supreme Court stated in Johnson v. M’Intosh that the United States and European countries could legally acquire Indian titles in just and necessary wars. But the court also defined a first discovery as a form of “conquest” because it automatically transferred some sovereign and property rights to Euro-Americans. All European countries that engaged in overseas exploration and The Doctrine of Discovery and Manifest Destiny 89 colonization utilized the Doctrine of Discovery to justify their claims. As Patricia Seed shows in Ceremonies of Possession, official rituals were developed to try to prove first discoveries and to establish which country could legally claim the rights of discovery. Many people misunderstand...


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