Mennonites and the Doctrine of Discovery: A Report from “Indiana Indian Day”

Indiana Indian Day event program 4-22-2017_Page_1Jason B. Kauffman

On September 5, 1838, members of the Potawatomi nation—859 men, women, and children—were marched at gunpoint through the main street of Rochester, Indiana. It was the beginning of a two-month forced march of over six hundred miles that ended in remote eastern Kansas along a tributary of the Osage River. Almost 180 years later, at an “Indiana Indian Day” event on April 22, 2017, Father Mike McKinney of St. Joseph Catholic Church walked to the middle of that same street in Rochester. With police cars stopping traffic and those in attendance looking on, Father McKinney blessed Main Street, “reclaiming it for peace.” It was a powerful and moving gesture of reconciliation between the descendants of the Potawatomi and those who benefited from their removal. After the blessing, Father McKinney left the road and the idling cars continued on their way.

Along with Denominational Minister Nancy Kauffmann, I represented Mennonite Church USA (MC USA) at the April 22 event at the invitation of co-organizers Shirley Willard, retired Fulton County historian and founding officer of the Potawatomi Trail of Death Association, and Adam Friesen Miller, a fourth grade teacher at Bethany Christian Schools in Goshen, Indiana. Over the past school year, Adam has been teaching his students about the history of the Potawatomi people and their forced removal from Indiana in 1838, using a curriculum developed by Char Mast, an Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary alumna.

DSC01880 Bethany 4th graders

Students from Bethany Christian Schools present on the erasure of Potawatomi experiences in Indiana history textbooks. Photo by Annette Brill Bergstresser, Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary

I had little prior knowledge of Potawatomi history or the confluence of historical circumstances and events that led to their removal from Indiana, but I was excited to participate in support of Adam and his students. I certainly don’t remember learning as a fourth grader about the violence and injustice that Native Americans faced as colonists and settlers moved west in search of land. I was impressed that Adam exposed his students to these tough questions and that they, in turn, wanted to do something to make a difference.

Shirley and Adam requested MC USA participation in the event because many early Mennonite settlers to northern Indiana gained title to land previously occupied by the Potawatomi, thus benefiting at their expense. Nancy and I agreed to offer a formal statement of apology to the Potawatomi and Miami people on behalf of Mennonite Church USA. As the date approached, however, we modified our statement at the request of the event organizers to include more information about the Doctrine of Discovery1 and the work that Mennonites are doing to address the legacies of injustice that Native American communities continue to face. After some last minute changes, we finalized our Statement of Confession and Commitment and read it publicly on April 22.2

DSC01911 Bob Pearl

Bob Pearl, a Potawatomi descendant, speaking during Indiana Indian Day. Photo by Annette Brill Bergstresser, Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary

The event itself went well and was a meaningful time to publicly confess the ways that Mennonites—and the rest of North American society—have profited from the marginalization of the Potawatomi and other Native American communities. It was also a great opportunity to meet and begin building relationships with members of the Potawatomi and Miami nations and to stand with members of the broader northern Indiana community in support of justice for Native Americans.

But the event and the statement we produced also left me with lingering questions about the relationship between words and action and what it takes to bridge the divide that often separates them. In particular, the following quote from Sarah Augustine on the Dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery Coalition website has continued to challenge me since the event: “Until individuals representing committed institutions stand together with indigenous and vulnerable peoples, our words and gestures too are rendered hollow and symbolic.”3 In other words, it’s one thing to acknowledge and lament this history of injustice and another thing entirely to do something about it. This is why the image of Father McKinney’s blessing and the stopped cars on Main Street in Rochester has stuck with me. After the powerful moment of reclaiming that space for peace the idling cars continued on their way, consuming a resource that our society continues to privilege ahead of justice for indigenous and other marginalized people.

These patterns of exploitation and injustice against indigenous people have deep historical roots which took hold with a series of papal bulls dating to the fifteenth century. These papal bulls established the legal and theological framework for the Doctrine of Discovery and played an early and enduring role during the period of Spanish and Portuguese colonization in the Americas.4 Under the encomienda system, for example, indigenous populations in the central valley of Mexico and the Andean highlands were forced to provide tribute—in the form of labor or goods—to colonial title holders. In return, encomenderos were supposed to instruct indigenous people in the Christian faith.5 In some regions, such as the Andean highlands, the system later evolved into a forced labor draft through which indigenous communities provided an annual quota of laborers to the Spanish colonial government.6 Many of these workers ended up toiling in mines to produce the silver that fueled Spain’s colonial empire. In one notorious case, untold numbers of indigenous people died from prolonged exposure to mercury, the toxic mineral used by colonists to extract silver from mined ore.7

These injustices have taken on new forms over time. Across the Americas, indigenous people continue to struggle against unjust systems. In South America, indigenous communities are fighting to maintain their livelihoods and access to communal lands in the face of multinational corporations seeking to profit from the production of oil and hydroelectric power. Similar dynamics are playing out in North America between the Standing Rock Sioux and developers of the Dakota Access Pipeline. At the heart of both colonial, pre-capitalist economic systems and the current globalized, neoliberal order is the desire to maximize profit through the control of natural resources and the labor of others. And, as history shows, those in power—including governments and corporations—are not above using violence and repression to protect those interests.

As people who care about peace and social justice, what responsibility do Mennonite and other members of the Anabaptist community have to right the wrongs of history? In our statement on April 22, I said that Mennonite Church USA affirms the current efforts among Mennonites and people of Anabaptist faith to “actively dismantle the Doctrine of Discovery at every level of society—in our laws and policies, in our states, in our communities, in our church institutions and in our congregations.” What can we do as individuals and as a denomination to make good on this commitment? This seems like a daunting (even impossible) goal to accomplish in light of over 500 years of injustice and a global economic system that continues to favor the interests of the powerful few at the expense of millions. But I think it is important to think about what it would look like to put these convictions into practice.

Education and consciousness-raising are clearly two of the best places to start. We can’t address injustice without first taking the time to understand how it has functioned in both its historical and present contexts. The Dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery Coalition has already done much work in this regard. The coalition recently produced a documentary that explains the historical context and theological basis of the Doctrine of Discovery and has also published study guides and reflections that help establish a biblical foundation to expose the misinterpretation of God’s word that the fifteenth century Church used to justify colonization.

It’s also important to open dialogue and build relationships with indigenous brothers and sisters in our local communities and across the country. For example, Ervin Stutzman, executive director of MC USA, and Jess McPherson, an educator and multidisciplinary artist of Susquehanna descent, have engaged in conversation about Stutzman’s work in historical fiction and how identities (as Amish, Native American, etc.) influence our ability to “tell history with integrity.” In northern Indiana, people like Rich Meyer have spent years researching the history of the Potawatomi and building relationships with members of the Potawatomi community. More recently, students and faculty at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary have worked to plan and lead a nine-day Trail of Death Pilgrimage from Indiana to Kansas. The course provides opportunities for participants to learn from members of the Potawatomi community about their history and the challenges they continue to face.

How do we get from education and relationship-building to the “actively dismantling” part? What would justice look like for Native American communities today and how can Mennonites best work in solidarity with them to achieve it? Would justice involve returning land, as the Jesuit order recently did to the Rosebud Sioux? Should Mennonite Church USA or member conferences and congregations establish a tithe paid to descendants of indigenous communities expelled from their lands? Or would dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery require a more radical restructuring of society and the legal, economic, and philosophical frameworks that underpin it? I don’t have answers to these questions. But the examples of people like Adam Friesen Miller and his students give me hope that God is at work in the relationships that Mennonites are building with Native American brothers and sisters, and that justice is possible.


  1.  The Dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery Coalition defines the Doctrine of Discovery as a “philosophical and legal framework dating to the 15th century that gave Christian governments moral and legal rights to invade and seize indigenous lands and dominate indigenous peoples.” The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History website contains a brief synopsis of its historical evolution as a concept. 
  2. The statement benefited greatly from feedback and phrasing suggestions given by Rich Meyer, Sarah Augustine, Katerina Friesen, and David B. Miller. 
  3. Augustine is co-director of Suriname Indigenous Health Fund, a private international charity, and Professor of Sociology at Heritage University. She is also actively involved in Mennonite efforts to work towards justice for indigenous communities in North America through the Dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery Coalition. 
  4. I’m most familiar with the case of Latin America but these dynamics played out in the context of British, French, and Dutch colonialism as well. 
  5. The encomienda was not initially a land grant. In the early years of colonization land held little inherent value without access to indigenous laborers to make it productive. This is one reason why the encomienda system became so entrenched in the highly populated regions of central Mexico and highland Peru. For a classic essay on the subject, see James Lockhart, “Encomienda and Hacienda: The Evolution of the Great Estate in the Spanish Indies,” Hispanic American Historical Review 49:3 (Aug. 1969), 411-429. 
  6. Many indigenous “elites” and middlemen actually profited from such colonial labor systems. 
  7. Nicholas A. Robins, Mercury, Mining, and Empire: The Human and Ecological Cost of Colonial Silver Mining in the Andes (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 2011). 

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