Following the money on the Doctrine of Discovery

Issue 2022, vol. 76

Review of The Land is Not Empty: Following Jesus in Dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery by Sarah Augustine (Herald Press, 2021)

The missions began in California in the late 18th century to convert the Indigenous People to Catholicism and expand the Spanish territory. In 1769, Franciscan priest Father Junipero Serra founded the first mission in what is now the city of San Diego. From 1769 until 1833, 21 California missions were built, designed to be within a day’s walk from one another.

Growing up, I lived less than five minutes from the Mission San Fernando Rey de Espana and took school field trips, attended weddings, and occasionally enjoyed the garden and some quiet time, at the mission. I was taught in the California 4th-grade history curriculum that Fr. Serra was a visionary to establish those missions. I was not taught that his vision was rooted in the Doctrine of Discovery.

In Sarah Augustine’s book The Land is Not Empty, she carefully explains the origins of the Doctrine of Discovery as a theological, philosophical and legal framework from the 15th century. Augustine, a Pueblo (Tewa) descendant, is the founder and co-chair of the Coalition to Dismantle the Doctrine of Discovery. She identifies the doctrine as the framework for historic and contemporary oppression of Indigenous Peoples.

The Doctrine of Discovery is based on the Latin phrase terra nullus, meaning “empty land,” which provided Christian European countries with the theological and legal doctrine to assume sovereignty over the so-called discovered lands. Any people who lived on these “empty lands” were described as “heathens, pagans and infidels” (27). This othering of Indigenous People gave Christian governments the moral and legal freedom to “invade and seize the Indigenous lands and dominate Indigenous People” (27).

As Augustine states, this set “…the stage for colonization as well as enslavement of African by Europeans. Christopher Columbus, under the direction of the Spanish Crown, was similarly instructed to ‘discover and conquer,’ ‘subdue’ and ‘acquire’ distant lands, and John Cabot was given similar direction by the British Crown. North and South America were colonized according to this pattern, as were Australia and New Zealand” (27).

The Doctrine of Discovery became the foundation for the global colonization and oppression of Indigenous People, through the creation of both international and national law in Western nations that continues today. As recently as 2005, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Gingsberg cited a U.S. law from 1823 that eliminated the rights of Indigenous Peoples to their own land. Gingsberg’s ruling upheld this law, declaring that repurchasing tribal land did not restore tribal sovereignty.

Currently the Doctrine of Discovery is manifested through legal resource extraction, such as mining, fracking, logging, water theft and plantation agriculture. The consequence is pollution of land and water where Indigenous People live, rooted in legal decisions made in the 1400s.

As Augustine notes, it is important to know and comprehend that the Doctrine of Discovery was created and sustained by the Christian Church. She challenges the church to reject, confront and dismantle this destructive doctrine, and “call systems of empire to accountability” (39).

To do this, Augustine writes, “follow the money.” She cogently describes the legal relationships between international aid, economic development and multinational financing such as the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, Inter-American Development Bank and African Development Bank. Significant international monies fund infrastructure initiatives – such as roads, dams and electrical power – within countries, but come with a price: the corporations oversee in-country politics and all environment and labor regulations, and identify the raw materials for extraction. Consequently, these investments destructively impact the local environment and the Indigenous and other vulnerable people. Because Indigenous People often lack any legal claim to the very land in which they live, their concerns, needs and desires go unheeded. The people on the land are secondary to the needs and desires of international businesses. Augustine describes this as “structural evil” and calls the church to account for its own participation in systemic injustice and oppressive laws.

She cites international financial services that manage individual retirement accounts, which profit from the global exploitation of Indigenous People. Augustine names well-known companies but also includes Everence, the financial services company for Mennonite Church USA.

In the final chapter, co-written with Sheri Hostetler, pastor at First Mennonite Church of San Francisco, Augustine offers suggestions on what the church can do to dismantle the Doctrine of Discovery.

First, know that this can only be done within and by community, not individuals. It is a collective process by committed people willing to confront, repent of and expose this structural sin. They invite congregations to join the Dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery coalition, which has developed multiple educational materials (see

Augustine and Hostetler suggest denominational engagement for direct peacemaking. For instance, a denomination could ask their church financial services to pressure the international corporations to hold direct conversations with the Indigenous People who live on the actual land being exploited. This pressure by church financial services is one way of calling those corporations into account.

Another possibility for church institutions is to change the structure of corporations, which might cause legal changes. Additionally, the institutions could litigate environmental and human rights violations by U.S. corporations in U.S. courts. Lastly, denominations can call for the enforcement of international policy that protects vulnerable people.

In these ways, the church can become a “vanguard of justice” for Indigenous and other vulnerable people.

Augustine, a member of Seattle Mennonite Church, writes a column for Anabaptist World and has published in The Mennonite and Anabaptist Witness. She and Hostetler co-host the Doctrine of Discovery podcast.

Family members who recently taught 4th-grade California history tell me that the story of Fr. Junipero Serra is no longer one about “a great visionary who civilized California.” Now, students are told of the enslavement and/or deaths of the Indigenous People by Christian Europeans imposing their will upon a full and thriving land. I hope those 4th graders will learn the foundations of the Doctrine of Discovery and will work to dismantle it.