Deb Haaland’s confirmation as secretary of the Department of Interior is a step towards dismantling the doctrine of discovery, a pivotal but perhaps little-known specter from Christianity that allowed and encouraged the colonization and the commodification of the lands we reside on now. She is the first Native American to lead the Department of the Interior and a voice that can counter that narrative of suppression. Her voice brings a fresh viewpoint of how we can refocus our relationship with each other and the land.
The doctrine of discovery, first put forth by the church in the 15th century, attempted to provide a theological and legal justification for both the seizure of lands not in the hands of Christians and for the slave trade. With centuries-long, worldwide horrific consequences from the implementation of this doctrine, Christians must take responsibility and lead in the efforts of reconciliation. The doctrine of discovery led to both the exploitation of entire peoples and to the unraveling of our relationship with the land, resulting in an increase in pollution and degradation. It wasn’t only the land that was taken, it was the health of the land as well. And so, the process of healing the relationship between peoples and between the Earth and people is a project that all of us, not only Christians, need to participate in.
Recognizing its devastating consequences to a whole community of people — through cultural and spiritual extermination — several Christian denominations repudiated the doctrine of discovery beginning in the 2010s. Denominations such as the Presbyterian Church USA, United Methodist Church, Episcopal Church and Evangelical Lutheran Church in America began efforts to unravel this doctrine within their own organizations and to find ways to offer healing to indigenous communities. The common thread in their institutional journeys of healing has been deep listening to indigenous voices previously muted.
This listening ear is important to all of us as we seek to heal our nation and right past wrongs. But healing cannot happen through goodwill alone. It must be centered in the wisdom and leadership of the very people who fell prey to the doctrine in the first place.
The healing actions needed rest within communities but also with agencies such as the Department of Interior, which has an outsized role in the United States regarding land stewardship. This responsibility justifies the imperative to have someone lead the agency who can reposition how we relate with the land and one another and thus begin to untangle the injustices performed under the doctrine of discovery. Haaland offers such leadership through her own experiences and membership within the indigenous community.
The work of conservation centered in indigenous wisdom that puts a premium on a healthy relationship with the land is often the most transformative and can benefit our nation. Conservation and environmental stewardship should not be viewed as a transaction producing a commodity but as an interactional alliance. This is the work that the Department of the Interior can enter under Haaland’s tenure.
Which makes the fact that Haaland’s views regarding conservation were labeled as “extreme” by some members of Congress ill-informed. The time has long passed for us to follow the voices as usual. Views that are centered on the status quo regarding the environment have led us down a path that has fueled a climate crisis, negatively impacted human health and either stoked the flames of injustice or, perhaps worse, ignored the injustice altogether. We should view this as an opportunity to gain wisdom from a vocal proponent of land conservation seated within an indigenous perspective.
As Christians grapple with how to dismantle the doctrine of discovery in their own contexts, it leads us all to move beyond the vision of ourselves as conquerors to one of collaborators and land stewards. In that same vein, we should insist that the Department of the Interior do the same.