Discovery, St. Junípero, Lewis and Clark (Tink Tinker, wazhazhe / Osage Nation)

Out of respect for Dr Tinker’s writing style, the editor has chosen to keep the author’s footnotesintact. Readers should know that they often expand and clarify the text in addition to pointing to sources. Readers may also be interested in Tinker’s earlier piece on The New Polis tracing the history of a book of Christian history that was bound in the flayed skin of an American Indian and displayed publicly for 80 years.

Discovery, St. Junípero, Lewis and Clark[1]

I lost my country back in 1803, something that was cemented by the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804-06. The eurochristian “legal” act involved was called Discovery. Yet, incredibly, the “Doctrine of (christian) Discovery” was largely ignored during the 2004-06 bicentennial commemoration of Lewis and Clark, even though they were called the “Corps of Discovery.”

Instead, americans commemorated the american romance of Lewis and Clark, a romance only occasionally offset by the tragedy persistently experienced by Native Peoples. This has been important for me to trace because nearly ten percent of the so-called louisiana purchase was Land called Home by the Osage Nation, who even had a Society, the monzhon akída (Land Protectors), who constantly walked the circumference of the Home-Land. 

The so-called legal theft of Osage Land worked this way: In 1803 the united states bought my Land, Osage Land—from the french. The u.s. did not, however, buy any actual “property,” which undoubtedly comes as a big surprise to most high school history students. No, under the legal fiction the eurochristians invented, the u.s. only bought the eurochristian “legal” preemptory right of (christian) Discovery, the only thing the french had to sell. This was not insignificant.

Even if the u.s. could not (yet) claim actual ownership of property, it did portend the extension of u.s. sovereignty and the eventual (and not too distant) conversion of the entire territory to “real property,” that is, legally designated property, so defined by the eurochristian Rule of Law. To ensure u.s. possession of the entire territory, Jefferson proceeded to send a military detachment, the Corps of Discovery, to enact the legal rituals of Discovery to seal the deal.

Needless to say, the whole transaction transpired without u.s. politicians (i.e., President Thomas Jefferson) even contemplating talking over the acquisition with any of the current occupants, that is, the several dozen sovereign Native Nations that lived on their Lands, now suddenly u.s. territory, and Land was converted to property. Perhaps we can begin to clarify this history by looking first at another act of Discovery, one that took place on the west coast of Turtle Island only three decades before Jefferson purchased my Land—from the french. 

The spanish claim on california is one of the most striking and blatant examples of the legal and ceremonial rituals invoking the Doctrine of Discovery. And a key player was the newest saint of the catholic church, Junípero Serra,[2] the patron of the california Indian mission system.

In the late springtime of 1770, the spanish “expedicion” of “descubrimiento” (Discovery) finally arrived at monterey bay on the central california coast. On June 3rd, Father Serra, as president of the california missions, gathered together all the people of the expedition—the military personnel are named first in Serra’s report (“all the officers of sea and Land”) as literate witnesses—in order to initiate the formal and legal claiming of Indian Lands for the spanish crown. This was the christian saint acting formally on behalf of his christian prince to legally steal Native Peoples’ Land (with all due attention to the Rule of Law, as Tocqueville might have averred[3]).

The grand festivities began, Serra himself reports, with the planting both of a large cross and the royal standard. At this moment of marking territory, Serra engages another act of marking territory with a religious ceremony. “I then sang the first Mass… celebrated here… [since Vizcaino].” After singing the Te Deum, continues Serra, “[T]he officers performed the ceremony of taking formal possession of the Land in the name of the King.” This whole celebration of Discovery and conquest was accompanied from beginning to end, says Serra, “with much thunder of powder both on Land and from the ship. To God alone be given all the honor and the glory.”

Saint Junípero was, of course, very comfortable with having his masses accompanied by the explosion of colonial military weaponry, something that happened at the founding of virtually every mission during this expedition of discovery beginning in 1769. Thus, concludes Serra, the wishes of “His excellency, the inspector-general [of Mexico]” have been carried out, insuring “the success of this Spiritual Conquest.” Father Serra was free now to subjugate the Natives as a spanish government functionary under conditions closely related to formal structures of slavery.

Another account of these festivities comes down from Serra’s military/civil government partner in the expedition, Gaspar de Portola (governor of california, and military commander-in-chief of the expedition to the ports of san diego and monterey). Portola’s account differs only in adding detail specifics about the formal acts of Discovery:

Since it is among the articles of the orders which I am to execute immediately on my arrival at the cited port of monterey, that I am to take possession in the name of His catholic Majesty— I ordered the officials of sea and Land to assemble, and I begged the reverend fathers to be pleased to assist in obeying the said order, directing the troops to place themselves under arms, after notifying them that it had been so ordered, and after these preparations had been made I proceeded to take possession in the name of his majesty under the circumstances that the decree provides, performing the ceremony of throwing earth and stones to the four winds, and proclaiming possession in the royal name of his catholic majesty, Don Carlos III, whom god preserve, and whose possession of the said port of monterey and other territories that rightfully ought and must be included, must be recognized.  After planting the triumphant standard of the holy cross, primary cause of the catholic, christian, and pious zeal of his majesty, which is manifested by the superior orders and perceived in the extent with which his royal exchequer is opened for the purpose of gathering the evangelical seed which is procured to the benefit of the numerous heathen dwelling in it, in order that it may appear at all times I sign it and the gentlemen officials sign it as witnesses. . . .” 

As was the case with columbus nearly three centuries earlier, the act of Discovery required particular ritual actions and witnesses, particularly literate witnesses. Hence, the summoning of missionaries and military officers. Now both the Land and the Natives could be harnessed [and forced to convert to the colonial religion] for the economic benefit of a “christian prince.” This was the requisite in church Law according to the 1493 papal bull, inter caetera, the same christian Law cited in an 1823 u.s. supreme court decision, Johnson v. M’Intosh.

Across the continent, at the same time as St. Junípero served as a political functionary in the Discovery process, british-american colonialists also knew the (eurochristian) international Law at stake. As they began the process of crafting their new eurochristian republic on american soil, and indeed, from the earliest english advances into north America, these euro-christian folk used the notion of “Discovery” to legitimize their brutal taking of Indian Land.

First named the “Doctrine of Discovery” by chief justice John Marshall in Johnson v. M’Intosh, eurochristian scholars to this day refer to it as (settled) international Law.[4]  Yet this reified Law is only in a limited and flawed sense international.  The Law only adjudicates among european christian nations (“christian princes”). This Discovery doctrine helped european christian nations determine which country had the prior right to invade and seize particular pieces of prime Indian Land.

Both as a politician and as a successful lawyer, Thomas Jefferson joined other virginians in arguing (perfectly in order with Discovery principles) that the territory of virginia must stretch as far west as the Mississippi River. Discovery then was a fiction, a eurochristian legal device to divvy up Indian Land amongst themselves according to some supposed Rule of Law. Thus, Lenape scholar Steve Newcomb’s insistence that it be clearly called the Doctrine of christian Discovery (Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery). In Johnson v. M’Intosh Marshall based his unanimous decision on his and the court’s bedrock identification of the united states as a christian nation. Indeed, by Marshall’s interpretation, it was christianity that marked european folk as a superior race entitled to take Indian Land. 

Two decades before Marshall, Jefferson committed the u.s. to the purchase of the louisiana territory by treaty with Napoleon, the french emperor. But that’s just the beginning. Converting Indian Land into the eurochristian category of “property” would involve a longer legal/military process of christian deceit and force.

Jefferson insured the second part of the Discovery process would begin almost immediately. He knew exactly what he was doing in naming the Lewis and Clark expedition the “Corps of Volunteers for North Western Discovery.”  This was not mere courageous romance and adventure (a la Stephen Ambrose) or the exciting expansion of the american frontier. Rather, it established an ironclad christian “legal” claim to other peoples’ homes!

Thus like spain in california, Jefferson was sending a military unit to perform the historically defined acts and rituals associated with discovery—to mark the territory as the legal expansion of american sovereignty over the territory of louisiana west of the Mississippi — and even to extend the american claim to that territory of the pacific northwest that was as yet unclaimed by any other christian nation. Of course, Native Nations already lived across the entire expanse. 

Thus one important aspect of Lewis and Clark’s charge was to announce to Indians that the united states was the new sovereign of the whole immense territory. Ultimately, their rituals of Discovery were intended to reify american possession of Indian Land as chrisitan property. And finally, they were sent with a fixed “Discovery” eye towards also claiming the territory to the northwest of his official purchase, the mouth of the columbia river and the Lands of the pacific northwest. 

To grasp Jefferson’s explicit understanding of the doctrine of discovery in appointing this expedition, one has to wait for an Indian historian and legal scholar to do the extensive archival research necessary. Shawnee scholar Robert Miller (Native America, Discovered and Conquered: Thomas Jefferson, Lewis & Clark, and Manifest Destiny) demonstrates from countless Jeffersonian documents that Jefferson was perfectly clear that his expedition was formally exercising Discovery on behalf of the united states. As a eurochristian colonial lawyer, a virginia real estate lawyer in particular, and as a Land dealer himself, Thomas Jefferson ascended the presidency with a firm grasp and practiced understanding of the Discovery principles.

He never uses the phraseology that Marshal created twenty years later, nor does he even mention the word “Discovery” in any formal legal context. Yet it is clear that he did indeed function both legally and politically with a clear understanding of the foundational eurochristian Rule of Law. The importance of Jefferson’s knowledge becomes apparent in the sheer mass of legal cases (over 400) he handled involving Land and Land title.  

In the context of religious disestablishment and the separation of church and state, the blessing of a church was no longer deemed necessary for enacting (christian) Discovery.  Yet there were legal trappings that had to be observed and performed, both to ensure the united states’ right of discovery to the louisiana territory and to extend those claims further to the northwest.  Miller demonstrates that Lewis and Clark “engaged in an amalgamation” of the formal and legal Discovery rituals that had been practiced by eurochristian nations of europe since columbus as they competed with one another to claim as much foreign property as each could—and give their Land-grabbing some legal clothing. It is abundantly apparent that Lewis and Clark were exercising great care, Miller reports, “to ensure that they used all the rituals necessary to make Discovery claims.” 

Just as clearly as St. Junípero and Portola on the beach at monterey, Lewis and Clark were enacting the rituals of Discovery to ensure that their “christian prince,” the invasive sovereign called the united states, could legally and morally claim ownership of someone else’s Land. The expedition, concludes Miller, is a living embodiment of Discovery. Like Portola and Serra and countless other eurochristian adventurers, they “took physical possession of Land, built permanent structures, engaged in parades and formal procedures of possession and occupation, tried to obtain Native consent to American possession, and engaged in mapmaking and celestial observations” (Miller, 112).

Lewis even wrote a 2500-word speech that was recited to each Native Nation they encountered.  The speech explained to Indian folk (in english) the new, Discovery-based, political structure of american sovereignty. Native leaders were given gifts of medals and american flags, marking people as well as territory as belonging to the u.s. At the same time, Lewis was careful to delineate the new relationship of parent and child to the Native community. From that time on, the president of the united states—in english only, albeit— was to be known as the “great father.” Indians were to be his “children”—and should therefore be obedient children, not unlike the expectation of St. Junípero.

Indeed, even the word father pertained in both contexts. In their typical romanticized interpretations of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, historians like Albert Furtwangler or Stephen Ambrose willfully overlook these explicit legal discourses embedded in the actions of the Corps of Discovery. It is all merely a part of the american romance of continental conquest.

So that’s how my people, the Osage Nation, lost our Land. It was all done “legally,” with perfect attention to the (christian) Rule of Law. Needless to say, I must insist that the Doctrine of Discovery, the legal device used, is a device predicated on extreme christian arrogance, an act of christian Supremacy (aka, White Supremacy). As an added benefit, once it is invoked, it can be relegated to the hidden depths of Law libraries so that good christian (White) folk can live in their homes (on our Land) with a distinct degree of plausible deniability. “We never knew.” As my brother is wont to say, denial is not a river in egypt.   

Tink Tinker is wazhazhe, a citizen of the Osage Nation. For 33 years he was a professor of American Indian studies at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado, where he still holds the title emeritus professor. During most of that time, Tinker also was the (non-stipendiary) director of Four Winds American Indian Council in Denver. Tinker has abandoned christianity as a colonialist and Genocidal imposition on Indian Peoples in favor of recapturing the traditional worldview of Native Peoples. Although Tinker was trained in eurochristian theology and bible, he has come to see the Native experience of the interrelationship of all life and our ideal of cosmic balance and harmony as totally incompatible with eurochristian colonialist imaginary of hierarchy, one that sees reality as a manichaean hierarchical struggle of good versus evil. He is the author of American Indian Liberation (Orbis, 2008).


[1] An earlier version of this essay was published as “Rites of Discovery: St. Junípero, Lewis and Clark,” in Yours, Mine, Ours: Unravelling the Doctrine of Discovery, a special issue of Intotemak (Fall/Winter, 2016), 97-100.

[2] Serra was canonized over the strenuous objections of california Indian Peoples in 2015. Indians remember Serra’s cruelties; White eurochristians remember that he gave them california, taking it away from Native Peoples who had long lived there. Indeed, he was a functionary of the state, an official of the spanish monarchy.

[3] About the united states, Tocqueville averred, “It is impossible to destroy men with more respect for the laws of humanity.” Tocqueville, 18:29. 

[4] See the audacious majority court decision penned by Ruth Bader Ginsberg in Oneida v. Sherrill (2005). 

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