Colonial Power, Mana Wāhine and the Doctrine of Christian Discovery

“Have your day in the sun to deny us our right, because the Doctrine of Discovery is long over. Long gone.”

These words by Dame Naida Glavish pulled the issue of religious racism into the spotlight this month as she called out the mayor of Kaipara for refusing to allow karakia in the council chambers to start their meeting. While some have been working for years to grow awareness about the Doctrine of Discovery and its role in shaping Aotearoa, the response to this matter, and to these words in particular, betrayed just how far we have to go as a nation in understanding this concept.


For those that need a quick run-down on exactly what the Doctrine of Discovery is: here, here and here are a few links. In a nutshell, the Doctrine of Discovery is a set of religious laws that granted entitlement to European monarchs to dispossess Indigenous peoples of their lands and enslave them for their own profit and privilege. Over centuries, those legal entitlements had whole economies and political systems built around them – until it eventually became a global economic and political meta-system that we all live under. It manifests in different ways around the world, but there are some core tenets which are consistent everywhere: Indigenous land is the rightful property of colonizers; Colonization is God’s work (ergo is good and just); Indigenous people can and should be contained and controlled; People who are non-Christian and non-European are lesser than European Christians; Profit is more important than human rights – are just a few of these tenets that have come to influence and shape our world.

Over the years I’ve learnt and shared about the Doctrine of Discovery, the issue of religion has always been one of the most sensitive aspects. Many, if not most of our people have been Christianized to varying degrees, and it’s difficult for people to reconcile the role of the church in colonization with their love and commitment to Christianity. While I don’t consider it my job to take that reconciliation journey for them, what I can say is this: it seems to me, that the bare minimum a good Christian can do, is sit with the truth of this story and contemplate what the Christian role should be in bringing justice to it.
So with that said – let’s delve a little deeper into the role of Christianity and the Doctrine of Discovery. After all – it’s the best time of year for Christianised society to be talking about sacredness, hope, and doing the right thing.

The full name of the Doctrine of Discovery is the Doctrine of Christian Discovery, and that’s probably a good place to start for illustrating how central Christianity is to this matter. Its abridgement speaks to the fact that while it started off as a Christian project (borne out of the Crusades and the longstanding war waged upon Islam by Christianity), the truth was largely because at the time of its inception, religion was the dominant vessel for transacting power. Over the following centuries, however, it has evolved to take on numerous other faces and forms – science, politics, social philosophy, International law, economy and business have all grown around the concepts codified within the Doctrine of Discovery – so reducing it to a Christian concept ignored these centuries of evolution. That said – Christian supremacy certainly still sits at the heart of the Doctrine, and still remains an injustice unresolved between the church and those who have been impacted – hence why Indigenous nations are still today calling for the Vatican to rescind the Doctrine of Discovery.


If you look to the text of the papal laws that constitute the Doctrine of Discovery, it is very clear that Non-Christians are framed as enemies of Christ, and that their conversion to the Euro-Christian empire, their dispossession for the benefit of the Euro-Christian empire, and their enslavement for the profit of the Euro-Christian empire was not just permitted, but was deemed a righteous Christian duty. The entire premise of the Debates of Valladolid, a series of arguments called for by King Charles of Spain (also the Holy Roman Empire) wrestled with the righteousness of waging war upon Indigenous peoples who refused conversion to Christianity. The parameters of that debate were that:

a) Indigenous peoples were inhuman and it is the Euro-Christian duty to smite them in the name of Christ or
b) Indigenous peoples are human, but lesser humans (like women or children) and should be given every opportunity to convert to Christ.

But Euro-Christianity did not just feature as a driver of the Doctrine of Discovery – it was also a powerful tool for establishing domination over Indigenous peoples. In the debates of Valladolid we can see that what is, literally, undebatable, is the assumed supremacy of Christianity. This is again referred to through El Requieremiento, the document read out by conquistadors as they arrived to invade Indigenous lands:

Of all these nations God our Lord gave charge to one man, called St. Peter, that he should be Lord and Superior of all the men in the world, that all should obey him, and that he should be the head of the whole Human Race, wherever men should live, and under whatever law, sect, or belief they should be; and he gave him the world for his kingdom and jurisdiction.

And he commanded him to place his seat in Rome, as the spot most fitting to rule the world from; but also he permitted him to have his seat in any other part of the world, and to judge and govern all Christians, Moors, Jews, Gentiles, and all other Sects.

El Requieremiento

Euro-Christian supremacy was utilised to both justify violence upon resistant Indigenous nations as well as to coerce Indigenous peoples into believing that the ultimate power rested with the Euro-Christian God, and the universal order determined by their God which fell first to the Pope, and his Church, and the various monarchs who administered his laws.

This was not just about the uplifting of Christianity, though. The project was deliberate and forceful in its debasement of Indigenous faith systems. In the seminal text “From a Native Daughter”, Haunani Kay-Trask laid a powerful foundation for our understanding of the inter-dependency of cultural debasement and colonial domination over lands and people: in order to exploit land and people, one must first assert a right of domination over them, and there is no more profound a way to do this than to diminish them spiritually. If you can assert that their god means nothing, then their universal order means nothing – spiritually they become terra nullius and as we know – any “blank space” is then able to be claimed, occupied and “righteously” colonized. If you are no longer sacred, and nothing you hold is sacred, then there is no consequence for abusing your rights. There is nothing that cannot be done to you, or taken from you, by those who ultimately sit above you in the universal order.

The de-sanctifying of Indigenous culture is a core feature of the Doctrine of Discovery and is a well-known military strategy. Importantly, this has held dire consequences for Indigenous women and children, as they are considered in many Indigenous cultures to carry spiritual roles pertaining to the creation of future generations and the continuation of culture. The direct attacks upon women and children by colonizing forces communicated that in the colonial mindset, nothing of the Indigenous world was held sacred, and there was no line that would not be crossed in the assertion of Euro-Christian dominance.

This belief is the underpinning value upon which the devaluing of Indigenous women’s lives, and theft and abuse of Indigenous children was built, which still manifests today as disproportionate and unacceptable numbers of missing, beaten, raped, and murdered Indigenous women; and State-stolen and State-abused Indigenous children. Indeed, the targeting of women and children by European colonizers in acts of violent debasement are some of the most disturbing and upsetting records to read by early missionaries such as Bartolome De Las Casas who accompanied conquistadors as they set about applying the Doctrine of Discovery in the Caribbean and Mexico.

Importantly – many of these conquistadors were actually just poor soldiers, who then went on to establish themselves as encomenderos – essentially, settler farmers who held political power over the Indigenous lands that they stole, and farmed. This pattern is mirrored in Aotearoa where poor English, Scottish and Irish colonial soldiers, also guilty for directly attacking Maori women and children in their pursuit of Maori land, illegitimately claimed the right to establish political systems at national and regional levels that further enabled the colonial project.


For these reasons, it was singularly powerful that a wāhine Māori councillor Pera Paniora took her stand against an older pakeha Mayor – the quintessential colonial “settler” archetype who has always dominated regional government (and in this case who predictably opposes co-governance and water-reforms). For these reasons, it was profoundly powerful that respected champion of Te Reo Maori Dame Naida Glavish continued her championship by calling out the Mayor’s racism, and supporting Pera, and by framing this as an application of the Doctrine of Discovery.

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