American Indian teens head to Vatican, hoping to overturn historic papal decrees

Published 8:08 am Friday, March 23, 2018

By Jean Hopfensperger

Star Tribune via Associated Press

Mitch Walking Elk and his students are unlikely Vatican visitors. But if all goes as planned, they will meet with Vatican officials in May with a plea: “Rescind the historic papal decrees that justified the domination of native peoples.”

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These 500-year-old decrees are at the center of a surprising flurry of faith-based activism and interest in the Twin Cities, home to one of the nation’s largest urban American Indian populations. Critics charge they formed the basis of the so-called Doctrine of Discovery, which asserted that the people and wealth of non-Christian lands belonged to those who “discovered” them.

Its legacy shapes federal Indian policy to this day and haunts Indians’ well-being, they say.

“There’s so many people who don’t know about this,” said Akili Day, one of the St. Paul high school students preparing for the trip. “Even if we are a small group, we can shed light on it and what it has done to us.”

Although a group of national Indian elders met Vatican leaders in 2016 to ask that the decrees be rescinded, Walking Elk’s teens and parents are expected to be the first such youthful delegation.

Their journey comes as a growing wave of national Protestant denominations, including Presbyterians, Methodists and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, have repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery. In Minnesota, their churches have been offering related workshops and supporting Indian efforts to make change.

Jim Bear Jacobs, who oversees a St. Paul Interfaith Network program called Healing Minnesota Stories, said he’s led dozens of such discussions, in addition to bus tours of sacred indigenous sites. Said Jacobs: “So many people are talking about this.”

A quick history lesson: Several papal decrees, known as “bulls,” were issued in the 1400s to legitimize the domination and destruction of non-Christian people. Those decrees, embraced by the early European colonizers of the Americas, formed the basis of U.S. Indian policy, which allowed the government to seize Indian land, remove its people, and control their personal and property rights, said Jacobs.