Between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries, European nations engaged in extensive overseas exploration, with Spain and Portugal competing as the two dominant powers. In 1493, Pope Alexander VI issued the papal bull Inter caetera, which supported Spain's claim to the lands Columbus had recently encountered. The bull claimed that any land not inhabited by Christians was available to be "discovered," suggesting that non-Christians did not hold the same rights to lands as Christians. The words and ideas expressed in the bull were important to establishing a belief that European nations were superior to Native Nations.
"We have indeed learned that you, who for a long time have intended to seek out and discover certain islands and mainlands remote and unknown and not hitherto discovered by others . . . by the authority of Almighty God conferred upon us . . . should any of said islands have been found by your envoys and captains give, grant, and assign to you and your heirs and successors . . . all islands and mainlands found and to be discovered."
What is problematic about the word "discovery" when used in the context of encountering Native lands?
As time went on and more imperial European nations sought lands to colonize , interpretations of Native land rights changed. Some European nations recognized the sovereignty of Native Nations and their rights of landownership. Subsequently, legal procedures were adopted to acquire Native lands, including establishing treaties with Native Nations.
The British American colonies recognized Native sovereignty and negotiated with Native Nations for the acquisition of their lands. Following the Revolutionary War, the newly independent United States acquired the territories previously claimed by Great Britain—including Native lands. As the United States grew in size and power, so did its hunger for expansion. Although there was a recognition of Native rights to own lands, official American documents often used terms like "savage" and "uncivilized" to describe Native people. Words such as these served to justify the taking of Native lands, sometimes by treaty and other times through coercion or conquest . The words reveal a harsh truth about how a mindset of superiority persisted in American thought.
"As our settlements approach their country, they must, from the scarcity of game, which that approach will induce to, retire farther back, and dispose of their lands, unless they dwindle compensation to nothing as all savages have done, who gain their sustenance by the chase, when compelled to live in the vicinity of civilized people, this leaves us the country without expense."
How does the word "savage" dehumanize Native Americans?
In 1823, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear a case that involved a dispute over competing claims to land: one party had purchased the lands directly from an Indian Tribe, while the other received a grant for the same lands from the United States Congress. Although no Native parties were involved in the case, the court's decision carried consequences for the land rights and sovereignty of American Indians. In a unanimous decision, the court ruled that even though Native Nations had the right to occupy their lands, their right to sell their lands was limited.
The words that Chief Justice John Marshall wrote in his opinion demonstrate that an attitude of superiority over Native Peoples persisted into the legal landscape of an ever-growing United States.
"The United States, then, have unequivocally acceded to that great and broad rule [Discovery] by which its civilized inhabits now hold this country. They hold, and assert in themselves, the title by which it was acquired. They maintain, as all others have maintained, that discovery gave an exclusive right to extinguish the Indian title of occupancy, either by purchase or by conquest; and gave also the right to such a degree of sovereignty, as the circumstances of the people would allow them to exercise."
What values or beliefs about American Indians are implied in Johnson's use of the word "civilized" to describe non-Indians?