I saw the play The Doctrine of Discovery on Wednesday night. It used drama to explain why those of us whose families immigrated to North America from other countries, must look at our history on this continent from the perspective of the indigenous people who had been here for thousands of years before we arrived.
I found two contrasting scenes in the play particularly powerful. One tells the story of a widowed Mennonite woman coming to North America as a refugee from Russia. During her harrowing march across Europe to freedom, she loses three of her children. She is so relieved to finally arrive in her new home. Now she can begin again on her own land. What she doesn’t realize is the property she acquires in North America once belonged to Indigenous people who have been forced to move to a reservation.
A subsequent scene tells the story of an Indigenous woman evicted from her ancestral lands and forced to take up life on a reservation. On her trek to her new home the Indigenous woman says over and over again, “and the children die.” There are sorrow and hardship awaiting her family as they are forced to adjust to a very different life governed by the harsh rules of colonizers.
Both women have made difficult journeys… both have lost children… but one woman’s hopeful story comes at the expense of another’s tragic story.
The play prompted me to do more research on The Doctrine of Discovery. It was a 15th-century edict that said Christians could lay claim to any land they discovered that was not already inhabited by Christians. If that land was home to ‘pagan’ people, attempts could be made to convert them. If these conversion attempts failed the ‘pagans’ could be made slaves or killed. The impact of this horrific doctrine is still being felt today and has been cited in court cases within the last decade.
In July of 2016 the national body of Mennonite churches to which I belong voted to officially and publicly repudiate or divorce itself from this doctrine. The play The Doctrine of Discovery is one way to help church members think about our participation in the enactment of that doctrine and to consider what steps we can take towards repentance, truth, and reconciliation with our indigenous neighbours.