Simran Jeet Singh:
And now I’m excited to introduce our guests for today, Mark Charles, who will be sharing his stories with us in the spirit of, of lifting us all up and helping open our eyes. He has a powerful new book, which I highly recommend called: Unsettling Truths: The Ongoing, Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery. We’ll be talking quite a bit from here today.
Actually, the first time I met Mark, I think it was before he declared his candidacy for president, we were at the Aspen Institute in DC and we were on a panel together and my jaw just hit the floor when I heard him talking about the very specific ways in which a U.S., and church policies, were used to create American racism.
You know, we, we learn about these things in the abstract. We understand these ideas to be true. But to, I’d never heard of the Doctrine of Discovery. I didn’t know what that meant. And it totally changed my understanding of American history and American racism.
And so, part of, part of the understanding that emerges from that is our series of sessions together. It doesn’t work if we don’t understand the colonial treatment of, of Indigenous peoples. And so that’s where we have to start historically.
Thank you for watching the Religion News Service series, “Anti-Racism as a Spiritual Practice.” I’m your host, Dr. Simran Jeet Singh. And this episode is part of the second season of our series, which we filmed late in 2020. The first season, which was entitled, “Becoming Less Racist,” can be viewed on religionnews.com. We thank Columbia University and Trinity University for their support in making the second season possible.
Before I begin, I want to acknowledge that I’m currently sitting in my apartment in Manhattan, which is traditionally the land of the Lenape, the Indigenous nation that made their homes here, raised their kids here, stewarded this land. They were removed from these lands by the colonizers so they could build their city here. And so just wanted to acknowledge that and, and offer my gratitude.
And so, I’m really grateful to you Mark, for taking time. I know you’re busy, you have a lot of stuff going on, so thank you for being with us. How’s everything going for you? How are you?
I’m doing well. Thank you. It’s very good to be with you tonight.
Okay, so, so here’s the thing Mark does. And I want him to do it for us. Would you, would you introduce yourself for us and in, in your traditional way?
Yeah. It’s good to be with all of you.
Yá’ át’ ééh. Mark Charles yinishyé.
Tsin bikee dine’é nishłí. Dóó tó’aheedlíinii bá shíshchíín.
Tsin bikee’ dine’é dashicheii. Dóó tódích’ íi’ nii dashinálí.
In our Navajo culture, when we introduce ourselves, we always give our four clans. We’re matrilineal as a people and our identities come from our mother’s mother. So my mother’s mother is American of Dutch heritage. And that’s why I say Tsin bikee dine’é. Loosely translated, that means I’m from the wooden shoe people. My second clan, my father’s mother is Dóó tó’aheedlíinii, which is the waters that flow together, My third clan, my mother’s father, is also Tsin bikee dine’é. And then my fourth clan, my father’s father is Dóó tódích’ íi’ nii, and that’s the bitter water clan. It’s one of the original clans of the Navajo people.
I’m speaking to you today from Washington, DC, which is the traditional lands of the Piscataway. The Piscataway is the nation that they lived here, they fished here, they hunted here, they raised their families here. They buried their dead here. They were here long before Columbus got lost at sea and they are still here. I’ve had the honor of meeting some of the Piscataway. I’ve been welcomed to these lands by the Piscataway, and I’m humbled to be living on these lands. And I want to honor them as the host people of these lands and thank them for their stewardship of these lands for all of these hundreds, even thousands of years.
Thank you, Mark. I appreciate that. And you know, I, I learned the land acknowledgment from you actually. And so, you’ll, you’ll hear some of the echoes of, of how you describe it in the way that I, and the way that I do it now. So, thank you.
And one of the things I learned from you, Mark, I remember asking you if it was okay for someone who’s not Native, someone who’s not Indigenous, to acknowledge the lands and, and, and you said something really powerful to me about why, why it is okay, and why it’s important. I was afraid that maybe it wasn’t my act or my, my performance, or it wasn’t my role to, to say something like that. And, and I remember you saying to me, what it really does is it reminds us of where we are in our place, where we are in our space and, and it reminds us of history.
And, and one of the things that you didn’t say, but was implicit in the way that you said it was, it helps us challenge the narratives that we’ve been taught growing up — the false narratives of how this land was, quote-unquote discovered, who owns it, who it belongs, to all those sorts of things. So, could you, could you talk to us a little bit about the, the significance of the land acknowledgment to you?
Yeah, one of the reasons, and I do it pretty much every time I speak publicly, so those who follow me, whether it’s my campaign or my speaking my, my speaking events, I do it every single time. And I do my introduction most every time. And at times it sounds repetitive, but it really is at — first of all, I, wherever I go around the country, I always look at whose land I’m on. There’s a resource I use — it’s native-land.ca. And it’s a very good resource. It’s not the final authority, but it’s a great resource to start your research of whose land you’re on, what treaties were signed there, and what languages were spoken there. Works for, you know, you can put it in any zip code or city or state within most North America, and it’s fairly accurate and gives a good place to start your research at.
But yeah, one of the reasons I do it so frequently is because everything we’re told as Americans is that the history of these lands started in 1492 and that this land was empty before then. The title, the title of our book Unsettling Truths, the first par — the first statement, and the first sentence of the first paragraph says you cannot discover lands that are already inhabited. You can colonize this land. You can steal those lands. You can conquer those lands. You can’t discover them.
But the way American history is framed is that these lands were empty prior to colonization, prior to Columbus landing on them. And there was no history before that. And so, I find it very helpful to just remind ourselves and remind people no matter where I go around the country, that, yeah, there’s a history. There’s an oral history. There’s a lived history. There’s an experiential history that goes far beyond what was written by European settlers and colonists. And it’s important to remind ourselves of the stories and that they exist everywhere we go throughout North America.
Thank you. I appreciate that.
And you know, one of my questions is how did you, Mark Charles, how did you learn this history? I mean, I, my, my — you grew up here and then the same country we did. And you know, just because you have Native blood doesn’t mean that it’s, you know, passed to you genetically. It must’ve been a process for you to uncover some of this history and challenge some of the, the stories that you’ve been told.
Yeah, it really was. And it was, it was a long process of kind of decolonizing my own understanding of this country. You know, I was raised — my parents are Christian. My grandparents on both sides of my family are also Christian. On my father’s side, my Navajo side, my grandparents were both boarding school survivors. And they became Christians in the boarding school. And the purpose of the boarding school was to kill the Indian to save the man. And so they were, they were forced and expected to assimilate to Western European culture. They were forced to give up their traditions, their language and everything else so that they could become civilized, and so that they might be able to have Christ.
And so, they, they converted under that guise and therefore they didn’t teach the language of the culture to my father. And so, he didn’t know what to teach it to me. And I actually attended a school in the Southwest — it’s Rehobeth Christian School. And it’s a, it was a mission school started in the early 1900s, and it operated for almost 70 or 80 years as a boarding school. And the purpose of the boarding schools was to kill the Indian, to save the man.
So, I attended this school between about 19… I graduated high school in 1989, and I was there for 12 years. So, I was — 1977 to 1989m I was at the school and I was, while I was there, it was transitioning from a boarding school to a day school. So, I was there as a day school student, and I had friends there as boarding school students. And I learned later that at various points, our experiences at the school were vastly different. And it, it didn’t cease being a boarding school actually until the early nineties.
And so, I grew up understanding, hearing, being told the same history that most every other American hears and understands. And had you ask me you know, because I lived in this border town, because I was at this boarding school, because I was being taught essentially the same mythological history that is taught all throughout the country, had you asked me when I graduated high school or even into college — what was the relationship between native peoples and the US government? I would have said, well, it, it used to be bad, but it’s much better now. And things are going well.
In the early 200s, I actually moved. I had graduated college. I went to UCLA. I had lived back in New Mexico and then moved to Denver, pastored a church there for a few years, and then moved back to the Navajo Nation. And I moved back there basically to understand — while I was pastoring this church, the church was on a journey to understand how do they worship Jesus as Native peoples. And that was one of the first questions that the council of this church posed to me in my first meeting with them after I became the pastor. And they asked me to learn about the process of contextualizing worship.
And so, I, I, I attended, they sent me to a conference in Hawaii called the World Christian Gathering on Indigenous Peoples. And it was literally Indigenous Christians from all over the world who met together on an annual, maybe once every other year, basis in different nations, different Indigenous lands, all around the world to talk about their process of decolonizing their faith.
I built some wonderful relationships in that organization in that group. I learned a ton of things. I saw a lot of different things and I began the process of decolonizing my faith. And part of that process was moving back to the Navajo Nation. So, after two years at the church in Denver, my wife and I and our son moved from Denver, Colorado, back to the Navajo Nation. And we wanted to live in one of the most traditional spaces we could find.
And actually, a family at our church offered us their traditional hogan, which was located on the sheep camp, in the middle of the reservation. And so, we moved there and we were, we moved to a sheep camp in a one-room hogan, 25 foot diameter room, a dirt floor, log walls, no running water, no electricity, six miles off the nearest paved road on a dirt road in a traditional sheep camp.
And we moved there completely ready and prepared to haul our water, to live by candlelight, to cook over a camp stove, or even an open fire, to use an outhouse. We prepared for all of that. Living off the grid. What we weren’t prepared for was how marginalized that community was. Even after just a few months, we very quickly observed that the only non-Natives we ever saw on our reservation were those who come to gave us, to come to give us charity, or those who came to take our picture. Almost no one came just to build relationship with us.
And while I was there, I was observing the historical trauma of my people who were boarding school survivors, who were living in poverty, who had massive unemployment, who were wrestling with the removal that took place at the order of Abraham Lincoln on our lands, they were dealing with that historical trauma. They were dealing with this intense marginalization and we were, it felt like we fell off the face of the earth.
And while I was wrestling with that, I was trying to process through it with some of my non-Native friends, mostly over the phone or email because they weren’t coming to the reservation. And every time we would talk about this history and I would start to articulate how I was feeling, living on the reservation in the middle of this country, I could feel the anger and the insecurity and, and all of that emotion coming up in me. And the longer I was talking to them, the more I felt like I might even lose control. So, I would end up hanging up the phone or ending the conversation so I wouldn’t start yelling at my friends.
And so, I trained myself, I taught myself how to disconnect from what I was discussing. So emotionally I could talk about it like I read it in the newspaper. And that way I was able to stay in the conversation longer. But then the longer I was in the conversation, the more my friends would get defensive. “It wasn’t my family that did that too. Wasn’t my fault that happened.” And then they would hang up the phone and we never were able to get to a point in the discussion to really discussing what was the challenging, and the problems we were facing.
And one day I sat down and I was going to write a letter to my friends. It was probably the 10th time I was trying to get them to understand how it felt to be Native, living on a reservation in the middle of our country. And in my letter, I wrote and I said to them, I said, being Native and living on a reservation, it feels like our Native communities are this old grandmother who has a very large and very beautiful house. And years ago, some people came into our house and they locked us upstairs in the bedroom. Today our house is full of people. They’re sitting on our furniture, they’re eating our food. They’re having a party inside our house. Now they’ve since come upstairs and they’ve unlocked the door to our bedroom, but it’s much later and we’re tired. We’re old, we’re weak, we’re sick. So we can’t, or we don’t, come out. But what hurts us the most, what causes us the most pain, is that virtually nobody from this party ever comes upstairs, seeks out the grandmother in the bedroom, sits down next from the bed, takes her hand and simply says, thank you. Thank you for letting us be in your house.
I wrote that and I’m like, that’s it. That’s how I’m feeling. And I begin to share that and articulate that with people in my community, other Natives, who I was living by. And they would say to me, I’ve lived here all my life. I’ve always struggled to articulate how it feels, and you’re hitting the nail on the head. I would share it with non-Natives and instead of getting defensive, they would come back to me and say, what does it look like to say thank you? How does my family, how does my community, how does my nation, how does my church, how does my city express gratitude to the host people of the lands?
See, now we’re having an entirely different conversation. Now, instead of talking about victim versus oppressor, we’re talking about what I think is the heart of the problem, which is this reversal of roles. Our nation likes to call itself a nation of immigrants, which isn’t accurate. We’re a nation of a majority of immigrants, but there’s two key populations that didn’t immigrate to join this nation. First of all, we have African Americans who were kidnapped and brought here against their will and then enslaved. And second, we have Native peoples who are indigenous to these lands and were here long before white settlement came in. And so, when we call ourselves a nation of immigrants, we ignore these two very key populations that are actually two of the most marginalized populations within our country.
And so, we have this nation that calls itself of immigrants, and they’ve never asked for, nor have they ever been given permission to be here, and they live here like they own the place. And then we have Native peoples, the Indigenous hosts of this land, who’ve been pushed aside to communities completely at the margins. And we’re treated like unwanted guests in someone else’s house.
And a big part of my work of what I’m doing, both in my campaign, as well as in my writing and everything else is, I’m trying to reframe the dialogue and reverse those roles. I want our nation to understand in some very real and practical ways that they are guests in someone else’s house. And I want our Native peoples to understand in some very real and practical ways that we’re the host people of the land, and we have to conduct ourselves, step into our role as hosts. And by doing this, if we’re able to realign our readjust those roles, I found that we can actually begin to have a much more constructive dialogue.
And the goal for the dialogue I’m trying to have, there’s, there’s a native elder from the Denae people up in Canada, and one of the Nations up in Canada, and when he was writing about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission up there, he used to quote that said, “where common memory is lacking, where people do not share the same past, there can be no real community.” If you want to build community, he said, you have to start by creating a common memory.
I love that quote. I think it’s genius because it gets to the heart of our nation’s problem with race, which is we don’t have a common memory. We have a white majority that remembers a mythological history of discovery and expansion, opportunity and exceptionalism. And we have communities of color that have the lived experiences of stolen lands and broken treaties, of slavery and Jim Crow laws, of, of internment camps, of Indian massacres, of segregation and mass incarceration and families being ripped apart at our borders. And there’s no common memory.
And there’s actually no point in American history where you can look back and say, Oh wow, we had really healthy relationships across racial lines during that period of our history. It doesn’t exist. And so, my work is to try and create that common memory, to learn how to talk about our history more accurately, so that while that discussion may be difficult, even painful, but so that we can achieve the goal of actually creating for the very first time a healthy community, especially across racial, ethnic, and, and even gender lines.
Yeah, I appreciate that. And, and one of the things I’m remembering as you speak, I’m remembering my comment too, about land acknowledgment a couple years back, I think when we were talking and I, I said part of my question was how, how does, how does it help Indigenous peoples to acknowledge the land? And you said, you know what, it’s not about us. This is about you and people who are not Indigenous to, to recognize their role and their place in society and, and, and to really reframe that thinking.
And, and I love that because I think, and I started out the conversation by saying this, that like so much of our conversation around race in this country and racism in this country is us pointing at other people and saying, you got it wrong. And we don’t, we don’t look within. And what you were asking me to do in that moment was say like, Hey, what about you? Like you too. And I’m hearing you say something really similar to that, about your own process. And then this is one of the reasons I really wanted to have you on for this first session.
You used the word decolonizing and, and, and I think it’s really helpful for all of us to sit here and be like, we all have to go through that process. And even you, Mark Charles, who are Native, like you internalize stuff, like you had white supremacist ideas in your own head and, and you had to go through that. And so, can you talk to us about what decolonizing it looks like? I mean, for you, it might’ve been a specific thing and for everyone it’s their own journey, but what do you mean by decolonizing? And what’s the, what’s the value that, that you get out of that?
Well, so the first thing you have to do in order to decolonize is you have to understand how implicit and how systemic this white supremacy is. So, the Doctrine of Discovery, it’s a series of papal bulls, edicts of the Catholic Church written between 1452 and 1493. It’s the church in Europe saying to the nations of Europe, wherever you go, whatever lands you find not ruled by white European Christian rulers, those people are subhuman and their land is yours to take.
This is literally the doctrine that let European nations go into Africa, colonize the continent, enslave the people because they didn’t think they were human. It’s the same doctrine that let Columbus, who was lost at sea, claim to have discovered America. Again, as I said earlier, you cannot discover land already inhabited. You can steal those lands, conquer those lands, colonize them. You can’t discover them unless you dehumanize the people who were here.
So, this Doctrine of Discovery get embedded into the foundations of the nation. It’s part of the Declaration of Independence. 30 lines below the statement “all men are created equal,” the Declaration of Independence actually refers to Natives as merciless Indian savages. The reason our founding fathers use the inclusive term, all men, is because their definition of who is human was actually very narrow.
Same with the Constitution. It starts with the words “we the people,” which sounds inclusive. Article one, section two, which defined who is and who is not included, who is under the definition of people — article one, section two, never mentions women, specifically excludes Natives and counts Africans as three-fifths of a person. In 1787 that literally left white men.
One of the most freeing days I have had as an American citizen is the day I acknowledged to myself and publicly that the Constitution was not written to protect me. That’s not why we have a Constitution. The courts aren’t there to protect me. The Constitution was not written to protect me. The Constitution was written to protect white landowning men. And once we acknowledge that and stop trying to make the Constitution do something or say something it was never intended to do, then we can actually start addressing what the problem is.
And let me show you how, how clear this is. A, a few months ago as part of the campaign, I was at the Frank LaMere Native American Presidential Forum. It was last August in 2019, there was 10 of the top Democratic candidates there, one or two of the Republicans, and I was there as an independent candidate. And on the stage they were asking every candidate, Bernie Sanders was there, Elizabeth Warren was there, Kamala Harris was there, Julian Castro was there, Marianne Williamson was there. And they asked us about this crisis in Indian country, known as missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.
It’s this crisis throughout Indian country where literally, there’s hundreds, even thousands of Indigenous from the grills who’ve been reported missing by the families, or murdered. They’ve been reported to law enforcement at the local federal and state levels. And not only have these cases not been closed, but frequently they’ve never even been opened. Oftentimes the families are literally left and told to go search for the missing ones themselves. It’s a crisis. I wear my, my Navajo bun, my seith, tied in red yarn to remind myself of this crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. And at the forum, they asked the candidates about this crisis and the candidates, stated almost all of them, once they learned about this crisis that they would propose a new law or they would enact a new policy.
Right now, there is a bill before President Trump’s office, his desk, that is, is a bill to help deal with the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. When they asked me about it, I said, what I said since then, is that when your Declaration of Independence calls Natives savages and your Constitution never mentioned to women, you probably shouldn’t be surprised when your Indigenous women go missing or get murdered in society, doesn’t care.
A new law isn’t going to solve this problem. The problem is the basis for our laws. This is a foundational level issue. If we want to fix the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, we don’t need to write a new law up here. We need to change the foundations down here. We need to take the concept of savages, of Natives, out of our Declaration of Independence, which is the value statements of our country. And we have to write a Constitution that removes the racism, the sexism, and the white supremacy from the, from the actual document. That’s how we solve this problem.
And so, the process of decolonizing is to understand how deep this is. And let me just give you one more example. In 1823, there was a Supreme Court case. It was Johnson versus McIntosh. Two white men, European descent. They’re litigating over one piece of land. One of them claimed to get the land from a Native tribe. The other one claimed they got it from the government. They want to know who owned it. The case goes all the way to the Supreme court. So, this is the John Marshall court, 1823. And they had to, he had to determine what was the legal precedent for land titles. He concluded, the Supreme Court concluded, that discovery is what gives title to the land. And then they go on to state that because Natives are savages, even though we were here first, we only are occupants of the land, like the fish would occupy water, birds would occupy air, and Europeans are the right, have the right of discovery to the land, and so they’re the true title holders.
That case in 1823, along with a few others, creates the legal precedent for land titles. That precedent and the Doctrine of Discovery get referenced by the Supreme Court in 1954, 1985, and most recently in 2005. I gave a TEDx talk. It’s online. It’s called: We, the People: The Three Most Misunderstood Words in US History. I go in depth into these cases.
The 2005 case, which in that TEDx talk, and also in my book, I demonstrate is probably one of the most white supremacist Supreme Court cases written in my lifetime. It refers, it builds the same argument as the 1823 Supreme Court case, implying that Natives are savages and that we cannot rekindle sovereignty over our lands that has long ago grown cold.
One of the most white supremacist opinions in my lifetime, and it was written by Ruth Bader Ginsburg. How, right? Isn’t she, wasn’t she, that this liberal voice of dissent on a conservative-leaning Supreme Court? Wasn’t she the person fighting for the people from the margins? Wasn’t she the person willing to write the scathing rebuke and dissent in these cases? Well, she did incredible job for women, especially white women, but she was not willing to do that when it came to Natives. She actually referenced in the first footnote of the case the Doctrine of Discovery. Why? Well, because when your land titles are based on a dehumanizing Doctrine of Discovery, white supremacy becomes a bipartisan value. She actually advocated in that opinion that the Tribes should allow the government to put their lands into trust, which is how reservations are established anyways.
Natives, if you didn’t know this, we don’t actually own the land on our reservation. Those are lands held in trust for us by the US government, and there was a Supreme Court case that had an opinion that came out just a few months ago, it was McGirt versus the state of Oklahoma. And the question of that case was based on a treaty — the whole Eastern half of Oklahoma was reservation land, and Oklahoma’s never treated it that way. And there was a case arguing that actually the treaty says it was, and it went all the way to the Supreme Court because the lower courts kept ruling in favor of the state of Oklahoma saying, yeah, it’s not a reservation. And they brought it all the way to the Supreme Court and the Supreme Court reversed the decision. They ruled in favor of McGirt, in favor of the Creek Nation, basically saying that for judicial purposes, the eastern half of Oklahoma is reservation land. And most people saw that opinion as a win for Indian country.
But because I don’t trust the Supreme Court, because I know the Constitution wasn’t written to protect Natives, I read the entire opinion. It was a 42-page opinion. And it was actually a horrific experience. Because while it stated that the state of Oklahoma didn’t have the right to disestablish reservation lands, and while it stated that the courts don’t have the right to disestablish reservation lands, and while it stated just because white people and non-Natives have moved into the land that doesn’t disestablish reservation land. Which is why they reversed the opinion. But frequently four or five, six times throughout the opinion, it stated and restated that any time the US Congress desires — anytime, and I’m quoting, now — it can muster the will, the United States Congress can disestablish reservation, lands, and break treaties with Native nations and there will be no consequence.
Again, this was opinion written, it came out literally in July, right? This was the perfect time because Ruth Bader Ginsburg actually stated that she regretted the 2005 opinion. She said that. This was her opportunity to reclaim the moral authority and take a stand for Native peoples. This was her opportunity to write the scathing dissent. There were two dissents in that opinion, both of them stated, not that the government doesn’t have the right to break treaties, it said the treaties were already broken, so it doesn’t matter. They broke it prior. And Ruth Bader Ginsburg again, sided with the majority and sign the opinion stating that yes, the US Congress, whenever it wants and without consequence can break treaties with Native nations.
And this is just how implicit the biases. Let me just help you understand this. So, most people think treaties and reservation lands are a Native issue. Well, that’s half true. The Creek Nation, which had a treaty that established the half of Oklahoma as treaty lands, what the treaty states is because they left their lands in North Carolina and Georgia and moved to Oklahoma, they, the treaty established that reservation, and that’s the treaty that the Supreme Court said the US Congress has the right to break. That’s the same treaty that the state of Oklahoma said was already broken. Now the treaty, yes, establishes that land in Oklahoma’s reservation, but it also gives the states of North Carolina and Georgia the right to use the land that was vacated. Right?
And if you break a treaty, then not only does one half fall apart, the other half falls apart. So, you would think if the US Congress broke a treaty with the Native nation, yes, that would disestablish the reservation lands, but it would also remove the right that the US government has overclaim of the lands that were vacated. But that’s not the way we treat that law. Why? Because of the Doctrine of Discovery, because of the belief that Natives never had the title to the land, we were merely occupants. And the moment European settlers and colonizers came here, and they cast their eye, their gaze over those lands, they discovered them and therefore the title was theirs to those lands.
And so, the fact that none of you are aware of the treaty that was broken for the land where you’re living is evidence of how implicit colonization is to your worldview and to your daily experience. And so decolonizing means understanding it at that level. And then figuring out what do we do about it.
Yeah. Yeah. I appreciate that. I mean, I, I really appreciate that. I want to put on my professor hat for a moment and just point out, you know, I, I think for, for the folks on this call, I don’t, I don’t think the ideas of discovery and Natives being as being savages, like I don’t, I don’t think that’s new to us. Those are things that by this point in our education, we tend to have heard and have challenged, but I think what might be new and was new for me, at least through you, Mark, was, was what that meant. Like, to me, it just, it was like, Oh, that’s wrong, that’s messed up. Like, that’s we, we shouldn’t do that. And we should reframe how we talk. But, but you’re what you’re doing for us is showing us the stakes of what happens when we allow for this to happen. Right?
Like what’s happened, I mean, quite literally the, the genocide of a people on the basis of a logic that says you are not equal to us. You are not, you are not equally deserving of rights. But, but more than that, like you are inhuman, right? To, to see as inferior is to create a logic of supremacy that then leads to direct violence. And so, so to see that codified in the Constitution, which is how that is sacred in this country, and then also to have you walk us through how is that produced and then perpetuated, and I think part, part of what I’m getting from you, Mark, and, and what I’ve learned through your work, and I’ve put a link to your book in case anyone wants to check it out, and part of, part of what you show us and, and part of what you’ve opened my eyes to is the complicity of the church in producing American racism, and, and that the papal bulls are, are, they’re church documents. Like this is a European colonization that’s produced through Christianity and that’s, I mean, that’s a problem, right?
So, on the one hand we’re sitting here, and we were asking the question of what does, what does racism have to do with religion? I mean, like, what does it not have to do with religion? On the other hand, what you’re talking to us is about, what you’re talking to us about, is how do we, how do we excavate internally some of the real problems that have become embedded in mess — not by our own doing right? And your friends who you were talking to on the phone and on their letters, like they were pushing back because they were like, it’s I didn’t do this. Like, it’s not, it’s not my problem. And, and what does it take for us to own that and to dig in and take that out? Right?
Like I growing up watched, like Looney Tunes and there would be Cowboys and Indians, right? Like there would always be like the, the, the Native character with a feather and like all sorts of like terrible stereotypes. I watch sports and all those mascots. Right? Like, never thought a thing about those. And what that means is, they were normalized, they were internalized, and they produce these nasty ideas in my head about what to think about Indigenous people.
So, so I really appreciate you walking us through, like, what are the stakes for us societally. Like, how do we get to this place where we are completely erasing of people physically, removing them physically, but also like, narratively. Like their, the Native peoples in this country are not people we talk about or think about, or, or anything like they don’t, they just don’t show up or register. And so yeah, how do we get to that place? That’s what you’re talking about.
And, and in the last thing, I just want to really pick up on that I’m hearing from you, Mark, and then anyone, if you have questions, I want to invite you to, you know, there’s a really special opportunity to get a chance to interact with clearly someone so brilliant and dedicated to this work. But, but the thing I’m really getting from you, Mark, is — so de-colonizing, that’s a collective need. Like we need to do this as a society. But it’s also a very personal one, right? Where you, you had your process, I’ve had mine, I’m still going through mine. And part of, part of what’s shared between us is that this process has, really digs into history. That’s, that’s something you and I have in common. And I think, I mean, I’d love to hear your perspective on it, but mine is my, my outlook is that history has to be a part of it, because it’s how we understand our stories and who we are as a people. And so, when we’re thinking about decolonizing, understanding who we are and how we got to be here is, is the only way for us to figure out how to move forward. It’s, it’s kind of like diagnosing the problem.
Yeah. One of the things we point out in our book, I think has chapters nine and ten, is that the victors write the, write the history. And because of that, and one of the, one of the biggest challenges the United States of America faces is we’ve never lost a war that matters, right? We’ve never, we’ve never been occupied. We’ve never given up land. You’ve never had to surrender. We’ve never been disarmed or had a regime change. We’ve won every major war we’ve been in. And because of that, for over 250 years, we’ve written our own history. And that’s very dangerous. Like that’s, that, that’s where mythology is born.
And we see that even just a month and a half ago, we passed the 75th anniversary of the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, and it hardly made a blip on our national stage. And what’s so striking about that is McNamara, who was, who was, went on to become the Secretary of Defense, he was actually serving in the Pacific theater under General LeMay. And he was an analyst, and he was helping analyze our bombing raids in Japan. And he made some suggestions of ways our bombing rates could be more effective. The general, LeMay, at the time was actually planning what was called Operation Meeting House, which was the, the incendiary bombing of Tokyo. One of it was the deadliest bombing in all of World War II, over a hundred thousand people, men, women, and children lost their lives in a single night in that bombing. It was more deadly than either Nagasaki or Hiroshima were.
And as he was reflecting on this in his documentary, The Fog of War, McNamara recalled that LeMay said to them, he said, you know, if, if we lose the war, we will all be tried as war criminals and McNamara agreed. He said that he was right. We were behaving as war criminals. Now, the reason McNamara was given honor when he was discharged from the military, the reason he went on to, to become the Secretary of Defense and actually became the architect of the Vietnam War and including the use of Agent Orange, and he was given the Medal of, of Freedom after that, the reason is because, not because he wasn’t a war criminal, but it’s because we won the war.
And so, so this is where we, it, it gets really confusing. And I want to just go back very quickly to what you talked about with the church and the Doctrine of Discovery coming out of the church. So, not only have we not lost war, but because our nation believes that we are God’s chosen people and North America, Turtle Island, is our promised land, this actually creates a new justification for what we did here, which is Manifest Destiny. If you look at the 19th century, which is when we added 30 new states to the Union, where the population of the US exploded, where the, the Native population dwindled — as we completed our Manifest Destiny, and I go back in my book and I don’t have time to do it right now, but I, I demonstrate how it came out of this sermon preached by John Winthrop, where he refers to this nation or to the colonists who were here as a city upon a hill, and referring to this, this teaching of Jesus from, from the from the Sermon on the Mount, and actually he misquotes the, the passage in Deuteronomy, and he, he says that they were standing on the banks of their promised land. That sermon, a model of Christian charity, I refer to that sermon as the birth of American exceptionalism. And it leads into this notion of Manifest Destiny.
And as our nation moved further and further west, literally ethically cleansing the entire country committing one of the worst genocides in the history of the world, as we made that march for the west, it was so bad. I want to actually read you one quote from a governor in California. And this is how bad that period of our history was. And Peter Burnett, who was the first governor of California, in 1851, he said that “a war of extermination will continue to be waged between the races until the Indian race becomes extinct, must be expected. While we cannot anticipate this result but with painful regret, the inevitable destiny of the race is beyond the power or the wisdom of man to avert.” He’s not saying that famine’s broken out and we can’t feed the Natives, and he’s not saying disease has struck and we can’t stop it spread. He’s literally saying we can’t stop killing these people until they become extinct.
And 10 years later, Abraham Lincoln becomes president. And he actually, when you look at this history, he is one of the most genocidal presidents in the history of our nation. Literally ethnically cleansing the states of Minnesota, Colorado, and the territory of New Mexico of Native nations. I can’t even imagine how many tens of thousands of Native lives were spared because he was assassinated in 1865. He is one of the most genocidal presence in the history of our nation. And we celebrate him as our greatest hero. And I would argue actually for that very reason, because he began completing Manifest Destiny for us.
And the reason that’s challenging and the reason it’s so dangerous that this isn’t just happening because we have a colonial nation that is blatantly committing genocide, but it’s because our nation believes it’s Christian and has Manifest Destiny and is using the nation of Israel and Old Testament Israel and their notion of promised land to justify what we’re doing here — if you read in the Book of Joshua, Joshua 10, verse 40, it says, so Joshua subdued the whole region including the hill country, then Negeb, the Western foothills and the mountain slopes together with all their kings. He left no survivors. He totally destroyed all who breathed. And the book of Deuteronomy, chapter 20, verse 16 and 17, it says, God says, however, in the cities of the nations, the Lord is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. Completely destroy them.
When you believe you have promised lands, when you believe you are God’s chosen people, when you believe you have a Manifest Destiny, that gives you the right, according to the Old Testament to literally commit genocide, which is exactly what our nation did. And that’s what’s so dangerous about this Doctrine of Discovery — is it takes the genocidal actions of a group of people, of a nation, and not only does it justify them, but it sanctifies them.
This is now worship to God. This is now fulfilling God’s will here on earth. And this is why America feels no guilt over what it’s done. This is why we will point fingers at Adolf Hitler and decry what he did to Jews in Nazi Germany, but we will build a memorial in the shape of a temple to honor Abraham Lincoln. Because we completely, it’s not that we’re more, we’re more just than Nazi Germany. It’s not that we’re more, we’re more humane than Nazi Germany. No, it’s that we literally believe our actions are not only justified, but sanctified.
So what do you – Mark, I have a question from the group and then I’ll read it out loud. It ties right into what you’re talking about here. Knowing the history of how Christianity came to this continent and your family in specific, how do you reconcile that with your personal faith now?
It’s been a long journey and I’ll be honest with that, you know. And even just these past few months, I’ve, I’ve had an, another twist to that journey. A big part of it and, in chapters one through four of our book is actually going through how we got from the teachings of Jesus, who says to love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, to a Doctrine of Discovery that says you have the right to kill people who don’t look, act, speak, or worship like you.
And understanding that journey, understanding how, what I would say that, call the heresy of Christian empire, it’s embedded into the church. And I, I actually, we, we pinpoint it back not to Constantine, but to the writings of Eusebius who was the Bishop of Cesarea, who I would say introduced the heresy of Christendom to Constantine. Because when the great persecution in, in 303 touched him, he saw his families and friends in Cesarea and Palestine being martyred, his idea, his view of martyrdom changed, and now he wanted to end it.
And so, in his writings, he began propping up Constantine as the God-ordained emperor of Rome, completely against the teaching of Jesus who insisted his kingdom was not of this earth, but somewhere else. And so, when, when Eusebius began to write in his book, Ecclesiastical History, that we had a God-ordained emperor of Rome, a secular nation, and he begins propping him up and Constantine bites, converts to Christianity, moves the capital and makes Christian empire again, which is completely against the teachings of Jesus.
And if, when you’re reading the book Ecclesiastical History, this is what’s fascinating, right? Because if you’re writing a book called the Ecclesiastical History, because of the fact that you’re writing the book and the history of the church will not end according to the Bible until the bridegroom returns, which is Christ, right? So, the fact that you’re writing a book called Ecclesiastical History is evidence that that history is not over. So, you’re merely writing a chapter, probably an early chapter in this process, and so, you would think you would understand that, but if you read Eusebius’ entire collection, his volume of Ecclesiastical History, which has 11 books, if you read it down to the last chapter of the last book, you will find that his book actually has a conclusion, but the conclusion has nothing to do with Christ. The conclusion is actually about the salvation that comes to Rome, not through Christ, but through Constantine.
So, if you want to create a Christian empire, which is completely against the teachings of Jesus, if you want to establish Caesar, an emperor as the God-ordained ruler of a nation, completely against the teachings of Jesus, the first thing you have to do is you have to write Christ out of ecclesiastical history. Which is exactly what Eusebius does.
This is one of the reasons I would argue the church is so impotent when it comes to systemic, multi-generational communal sin today, because it doesn’t know Christ at that level. It’s written Christ out of that space and wrote in Caesar, wrote in Constantine. And I would argue, and we do this in our book, that in our version of, of, of Christendom here in the US, our Cesar is actually Abraham Lincoln. He’s our Messiah figure. And even though he was assassinated on Good Friday, his blood doesn’t do squat for us.
And so, this is why if you go to the church, right, if you go to the church and you say, Hey, I murdered someone, I, I had an affair, I committed a crime and you go to the church and they’ll say to you, Hey, well, you know, there’s this guy Jesus, he can help you. And you may have to pay civically for your sin, but he can save you. Right? But if you go to the church and you say, I want to deal with the sin of white supremacy, I want to deal with the sin of Black lives don’t matter, I want to deal with the sin of racism or white supremacy or of slavery, the church doesn’t know what to do, right? They’re just going to stare at you. Maybe they’ll wash your feet or have some kind of cleansings from, but they don’t know what to do. Why?
Because the church has written Christ out of ecclesiastical history. They have no theological space to deal with multi-generational communal and corporate sin. This was very clear. I was actually at Standing Rock and at Standing Rock, a lot of churches came together and they wanted to renounce the Doctrine of Discovery. They wanted to, they wanted to, to renounce the Doctrine of Discovery. And they did. They, they read statements of repudiation. They, they denounced it right in front of the sacred fire. Hugs were given. Tears were shed. I heard it was a beautiful experience.
I was there about two weeks later, and I met with the person who organized it and we sat down and I was interested to hear it. He was very excited. I said, I’d love to hear this. And he told me the story. I said, well, I’m curious because the Doctrine of Discovery is the legal precedent for land titles. So, I’m curious when you read your statements of repudiation, did you give back any land? “No, we didn’t do that. Well, that, that probably came a bit quickly, that would have been a logistical mountain to climb.” So, that’s understandable. But the Doctrine of Discovery is still the legal precedent for land titles, and churches own a lot of lands. So, when you read your statements or repudiation, did you tell the Tribes that should they sue any of these churches for their land, because the church has defense legally would ultimately rest on this Doctrine of Discovery, which they repudiated, did you commit as churches that you would not defend yourself in court? He said, no, we didn’t do that either.
I said, Oh, so this was just a photo op. Right? Nothing just happened here. Nothing changed. Nothing’s different. You just had a photo op. He wasn’t happy with me, but he had to acknowledge, yeah, that’s what it was.
That’s the problem is, is the church, even when it wants to repudiate something like the Doctrine of Discovery, doesn’t understand and is not willing to deal with the consequences of that. It doesn’t know how to deal with systemic multi-generational corporate sin because it’s literally written Christ out of ecclesiastical history. It doesn’t know Christ there. It only knows Constantine. And so just recognizing that for myself, helps me understand what it means to decolonize my faith, what it means to actually be a follower of Jesus and not a follower of the church.
That’s great. Thank you. Thank you, Mark, for saying that. And I mean, one of, one of the things that I think people have learned about you in this last hour is you don’t, you don’t apologize for telling the truth. So, I appreciate your candor.
Let me, let me ask you one more question before we, before we wrap up and that’s — you gave us this, this metaphor of, of being locked in the, in the upstairs bedroom, and you talked about, people don’t even think about holding our hand and saying, thank you or asking how we’re doing or anything like that. And so, I guess my question to you is, what does that look like for us as people who want to be allies, as people who want to be sensitive and supportive but sometimes either don’t know what to do or fear or feel paralyzed about doing the wrong thing?
Yeah. I think that the biggest thing, and I’ll just give the, give you another paradigm of how to think about this. It’s really acknowledging that you’re guests in someone else’s house. So doing a land acknowledgment is a huge part of that process. But even more so I would say it goes even much deeper than that.
And I’m just giving you one example. I was out herding sheep one day, this was early 2000s. George Bush had just come into office and we were having a national dialogue about immigration reform. And I was out herding sheep with one of the elders in our sheep camp. He was a boarding school survivor, spoke better Navajo than English, lived there most of his life. And we’re walking through the fields, herding sheep. And I said to him, I said, the whole country is talking about immigration reform. I’m curious, what are your thoughts? And he looked at me. He said, well, there’s already so many of them here, so maybe we shouldn’t worry about borders anymore.
Now if you’re anywhere else in the country, you immediately think he’s talking about the 14 million undocumented who’ve come over our southern borders. But because we’re both Native, because we’re on a reservation, because he’s a boarding school survivor, you have to pause and think, is he talking about the 14 million or the 300 million undocumented who have been pouring into our nation for the past 500 years, mostly from Europe?
And the ambiguity was so great. I didn’t even ask him to clarify. I just left it there. And I began teaching people from that point on and said, without Natives at the table, the United States of America is incapable of comprehensively and justly reforming immigration law. Without Natives at the table, all you have is one generation of undocumented immigrants trying to figure it out, to deal with another generation of undocumented immigrants, and there’s no integrity in the dialogue. Doesn’t matter if you’re building a wall to keep people out, or you’re tearing one down to let people in. If you don’t have Natives, the Indigenous hosts of this land at the heart of your discussion, leading your dialogue, you don’t have the integrity to do either.
And so, part of this process is just recognizing because of our nation’s lack of integrity, what are the conversations? What are the things we have no right to do? And writing immigration law is merely just one of them. There are many, many, many things our nation does not have the integrity to do and writing immigration laws, just, is just the first on I, I will, I’ll name here.
And so, it’s, it’s really helping people recognize that, yeah, in very real and very practical ways, you are guests in someone else’s house, you don’t even have a treaty to be here. Most of you, either you were, you were born here or you came here and you have a signed document by other undocumented immigrants who don’t have a treaty to give their reason for being here either. But that’s the challenge we’re facing as a nation.
And just like I was saying earlier, if we want to deal with the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, we have to change our foundations. If we want to deal and actually write a comprehensive and just immigration law, we have to wrestle with and deal with how this nation was founded. We have to deal with the Doctrine of Discovery. We have to wrestle with some things at very, very deep and foundational levels. And most people in our country have no desire to do that.
One of the things I advocate, advocate for the top of my lungs, I’ve been saying this for four or five years now, is that the United States of America needs a national dialogue on race, gender, and class — a conversation I would put on par with the Truth and the Reconciliation Commissions that happened in South Africa, in Rwanda, and in Canada. I wouldn’t call ours truth and reconciliation though, because reconciliation implies there was a previous harmony, which isn’t accurate. I would use the root of that word. I would call it truth and conciliation. Conciliation is merely the mediation of a dispute. If reconciliation perpetuates the myth, we used to be great, now we’re not, conciliation demands we have a much more honest starting point. They both get us to a better ending point, a healthier relationship. Just one’s more honest, the other’s more mythological.
And that’s my goal. I’m doing everything I can to create, to instigate, to initiate, this national dialogue on race, gender, and class. And I’m convinced until we have that type of a dialogue, we are not going to be able to deal with the challenges our nation is facing at so many different levels.
Thanks Mark. We had, we had a couple other questions come in. I’m going to take one of them and then, and then let you go, because I know we’re running a little bit over. But the, the question I’m seeing here from, from Alex: thank you for sharing so much with us. It has moved me. Would you please talk a bit about how humanism and atheism work within the pervasive Doctrine of Discovery for you, or for you are atheists merely fooling themselves? Because atheism in the United States sanctifies the same heroes, like the colonists and Lincoln, et cetera.
One of the things I say to people is that you cannot understand American history without first understanding the history of the church. Doesn’t matter what religion you belong to. Doesn’t matter when you got here. If you don’t understand the history of our nation or the history of the church, you’ll never understand the history of our nation. And again, it doesn’t matter how you came here or what, what religion you practice. If you are not actively working out relationship with Native peoples, if you’re not thinking about treaties or reservations, if you’re not thinking about your integrity to pass comprehensive immigration reform and things like that, the reason you’re not thinking about those things is because of a Christian doctrine.
Doesn’t matter if you’re atheist, doesn’t matter if you’re Hindu, doesn’t matter if you’re Muslim, it doesn’t matter what religion you are. Your nation was founded on a Doctrine of Discovery, which is a heretical document that came out of Western Christianity. And everyone needs to understand that. I tell people it doesn’t matter if you, if you jumped a fence last week or if your ancestors came over on the Mayflower, it doesn’t matter. You need to wrestle with these Christian documents and how they’ve been embedded into the foundations of the nation that you live in, and how you interpret the Constitution that defines your rights.
So, yeah, I, this, this is not just about, I mean, our book, the, the, the primary audience of our book was Western Christianity, the Western church, and it’s a, it’s a flat-out rebuke of the church, but I was very intentional to write it so it was accessible to every American. And that was hard to do because IVP was our publisher and they’re used to publishing Christian books for Christian audiences. And I kept telling them we have to make this so it’s readable to non-Christians because this book is so important.
While I want to rebuke the church, I also want to educate our nation no matter what their religious background is that these church documents absolutely impact the way they conduct their lives as American citizens.
That’s great. And I’ll, I’ll recommend it one more time. Unsettling Truths: The Ongoing, Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery. It’s on Audible too, in case you do Audible, audio books instead. But really, really eye opening. The kind of history that you want, but don’t get and so, and, and really need, right? And so that’s, that’s the value here. Mark, thank you so much. I know, I know we’ve gone over a bit and it is really valuable, but it’s really generous of you to, to share your insights with us and your experiences with us, and you do it in such a direct and honest way that it really helps open up our eyes to the realities that are hiding beneath the surface. And so, thank you for your time. Really grateful.
Thank you. Yeah. And I just wanted to make sure I acknowledge my co-author on this book. I didn’t write this book alone. I coauthored with Soong-Chan Rah, a brilliant professor from North Park Seminary and a great friend of mine. He’s written another, a number of other great books and there’s also another really good book I highly recommend to people. It’s by Steven Newcomb, who is Shawnee, and he’s a Native author and wrote a great book called Pagans in the Promised Land. And it really goes into the depths of the Doctrine of Discovery. He’s not a Christian. He and I don’t agree on everything. But his book is, is very important and I highly recommend it for people to read it and to just get his perspective on how this doctrine has affected our nation.
That’s great. Thank you, Mark. Thanks again for your time. And everybody, thank you for joining us and for being on this journey,