The enduring impact of the religious and secular policies, which provided the justification for colonization, upon the lives and wellbeing of indigenous peoples.
Indigenous peoples throughout the world are living representatives of the world’s oldest continuing cultures. They are also among the most dispossessed and disadvantaged of people. In more than 70 countries indigenous peoples are over-represented in all the categories used to measure poverty and social exclusion – life expectancy, decent housing, completion rates for education, health, levels of incarceration, joblessness and discrimination.
The phenomenon of colonization and settlement of lands in the “new world” from the fifteenth century onwards is marked by the expropriation of lands, territories and resources of the original inhabitants. Based on a racist mentality, and reinforced by religious edicts and secular policies, indigenous peoples were seen as inferior to the European settlers. This evaluation led to the violation of their cultural practices and spiritual expressions. It also enabled the practice of such abominations as the practice and institution of slavery.
The meridian to the right was defined by Inter caetera, the one to the left by the Treaty of Tordesillas. Modern boundaries and cities are shown for purposes of illustration.
Ongoing relationships between governments and traditional peoples in the Americas, Africa and Oceania have as their foundation the ‘doctrine of conquest’ or the ‘doctrine of discovery.’ These doctrines, readily taken up by governments, can be traced directly to the Papal Bulls: Dum Diversis, June 18, 1452; Romanus Pontifex, January 8th 1455 and Inter Caetera, May 4th 1493. Pope Alexander VI in Inter Caetera says to Ferdinand and Isabella “this assuredly ranks highest, that in our times especially the Catholic faith and the Christian religion be exalted and be everywhere increased and spread, that the health of souls be cared for and that barbarous nations be overthrown and brought to the faith itself. You have purposed to bring under your sway the said mainlands and islands with their residents and inhabitants and to bring them to the Catholic faith.”
It is scarcely an afterthought that the Pope also mentions that “In the islands and countries already discovered are found gold, spices, and very many other precious things of divers kinds and qualities.” 
The Pope, at thas time, was not only the spiritual head of the Catholic Church, but also the political arbiter of the whole of Europe. The papal decrees gave Spain and Portugal dominion over lands that indigenous peoples occupied for thousands of years. It made the European age of “Discovery” possible and the theft of entire continents.
The Cantino planisphere of 1502 shows the line of the Treaty of Tordesillas.
As Columbus’ success in the New World became known, John Cabot in 1495 suggested to Henry VII a voyage to “the Indies”. Spain protested, as this would be in violation of the Tordisellas Line declared by the Pope in 1494. The King granted a patent to go “to all places, east, west and north“, but not south in Spanish waters. As agent of the English Crown Cabot was to investigate, claim and possess lands “which before this time were unknown to all Christians” – which meant he could not intrude on Spanish and Portuguese discoveries. 
More than 500 years later these papal decrees still shape the way people live, think and relate to one another. Like it or not, they still provide the legal and moral basis for states’ jurisdiction over traditional peoples. Decisions based on past racist notions of the superiority of one race or religion over others, continue to negatively affect indigenous lives.
Such attitudes became enshrined in law. The U.S. Supreme Court, in 1823, drawing on the notion of domination ruled in Johnson and Graham’s Lessee v. M’Intosh that the United States, as rightful successor to various ‘potentates’, had “ultimate dominion” or “ultimate title” over all lands which fall within the claimed boundaries of the United States. This decision was directly linked to earlier documents that commissioned “Christian people” to “discover” and possess the lands of “heathens”. This has been used to limit Native Americans’ title to their traditional lands to “right of occupancy” which must bow to the “absolute title” of the United States. The Johnson case has been used in the courts of English speaking countries – Australia, Canada, New Zealand – to justify the limitation of indigenous peoples’ title to their lands.
“The dominating mindset and interpretive framework expressed in those Vatican documents has been institutionalized in the world for more than five centuries.”
In light of the above we call upon:
Pope Benedict XVI, to promote the inherent dignity of indigenous peoples, revoke the Papal Bulls that are seen as supporting the continued institutionalization in law of attitudes which prevent indigenous peoples from being treated as equals before the law in the matters of title to their lands, resources and territories.
The governments of European colonial powers to repudiate the policies that enabled them to benefit from the disadvantage and enslavement of indigenous peoples in their former colonies.
Governments to dismantle the legal structures and policies that are based upon the principles of dominance and racism which limit indigenous people in their capacity to enjoy full exercise of their right to self-determination in shaping the expression of their culture, education, spirituality and community.
Governments and churches to consider how they can provide opportunities for the indigenous people, within their membership or within their borders, to explore their needs for recompense in the face of five centuries of dispossession and alienation.
All citizens of states with indigenous members to seek ways to acknowledge the injustices that have brought prosperity to some and suffering to others and to explore, in dialogue with indigenous people, steps towards mutual reconciliation.
- Kevin Dance, C.P.
NGO Committee on the United Nations International Decade of the World’s Indigenous Peoples.
 Original document housed in the Public Record Office, London.
 Steven Newcomb, Shawnee and Lenape, is the author of “Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery” (Fulcrum, 2008)