The day after the Cowessess First Nation announced it found at least 751 unmarked graves near Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan, the Evangelical First Covenant Church released a new resolution condemning what’s known as “the Doctrine of Discovery,” according to Religion News Service.
For years, the Doctrine of Discovery was used by Christians to justify exercising dominion over foreign sovereign nations. The doctrine gave European Christians theological cover for colonizing indigenous groups in the Americas during the Age of Discovery, which frequently included plundering, killing, raping and seizing of lands. We may never know all of the horrors committed by white Christians in the name of “Doctrine of Discovery,” but searing revelations like the one coming out from Saskatchewan are a reminder of just how much there is to atone for.
“After 125 years, the healing is beginning in the Evangelical Covenant Church, and I’m grateful to be starting this journey with you today,” said Rev. TJ Smith, president of the Indigenous Ministers Association. He delivered his speech following a vote to approve the resolution at the Covenant Annual Connection, where the denomination acknowledged the harm done to indigenous people and mourning the Church’s role in it.
The 751 unmarked graves outside of Marieval came just weeks after the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation discovered the remains of 215 indigenous children buried on the grounds of what used to be Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia, a Roman Catholic-founded school that was once the largest in Canada’s Indian Affairs residential school system.
The Doctrine of Discovery dates back to several papal edicts in the 15th Century, but the Supreme Court made it a law in 1823, ruling that the U.S. Government was in charge of who owned what property in North America — not indigenous nations. Having been given permission from both the Church and the U.S. Government, countless indigenous children were ripped from their homes to be placed in boarding schools.
In recent years, Canada has made an effort to reckon with this religious legacy, including a call from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Pope Francis to visit First Nations groups in the country and issue an apology from the Church.
However, the U.S. has done no such federal investigation. “In the U.S., we haven’t done that,” Smith said in his address. “We’re invisible. They don’t even care enough to know.”
If the government is dragging its heels, the Church may need to take the first step, and the Evangelical Covenant Church joins several Mainline Protestant churches in condemning the Doctrine of Discovery. If enough churches are willing to start atoning for their violent histories and the ongoing shockwaves, perhaps a broader, systemic healing can begin as well.