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Decolonizing Our Faith

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Sep 13, 2012

As an Italian-American, I dread the second week in October. This is, of course, when my cultural heritage is celebrated with parades and festivals in the name of Christopher Columbus, whose arrival on this continent heralded an era of European conquest. Each year, I am forced to confront my ancestors’ complicity in the European colonization of the rest of the world—and the dehumanization, genocide, and enslavement that accompanied it. Each year, I hear the language that proclaims that Columbus “discovered” America, and I struggle, knowing where this language comes from.

The language of “discovery” comes directly from a European doctrine, developed by popes and embraced by monarchs. It claimed that when Christian Europeans landed on a shore inhabited by non-Christians, they assumed all rights to the land and its people as if they had discovered it. The Doctrine of Discovery, as it has come to be known, is still the legal basis for the modern-day treatment of indigenous peoples by the U.S. government. Federal control of the lands of Native American nations, immigration policies with respect to the indigenous peoples on the U.S.-Mexico border, and Native Hawai’ian peoples’ rights to religious freedom are all decided by remnants of a centuries-old doctrine that is based on the belief that non-Christian people lack souls.

This June at our annual General Assembly, delegates from Unitarian Universalist congregations passed a resolution repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery. We were asked to do this by a coalition of indigenous peoples with whom we were working on issues of immigration justice. We answered their call to accountability with action.

Now, we must continue to educate ourselves, our congregations, and our communities about the impact of the Doctrine and its persistence in our laws and policies. Honoring Indigenous People’s Day this October 8th provides an opportunity for us to do just that. Click here to learn more about how you can take action against the Doctrine of Discovery.

In repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery, our delegates decreed that it was incompatible with a theology that affirms the inherent worth and dignity of all people. We declared that right relationship between indigenous peoples and those whose ancestors came from other continents is only possible if we sit down together as equals. We affirmed that our call to stand on the side of love means that we must work to dismantle systems built on a foundation of intolerance and division.

This means pledging ourselves to working to repeal and repudiate this doctrine wherever it shows itself in our society today. While that includes asking the U.S. government to fully implement the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, it doesn’t end there. Right now, there are probably policies in your local communities that mean that landowners are not in right relationship with the native peoples whose ancestral lands they live on. Coalitions of indigenous peoples in your state or region are likely signing up allied organizations in their struggles to gain equality, recognition, and respect. In the coming weeks and months, there will be legislation and advocacy efforts with the potential either to perpetuate the Doctrine of Discovery or to heal wounds inflicted by it.

Native American communities have for many years asked their allies to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day. Doing so means more than just changing what our calendars call the second Monday in October, however. It means educating ourselves about the very real issues facing the indigenous peoples with whom our faith calls us to be in right relationship.

This Indigenous Peoples Day, I invite you to seek to understand how the Doctrine of Discovery is still at work in your community and in your country. I invite you to seek partnerships with native peoples and to practice accountability in answering their calls to action. I invite you to unite in support of policies and laws that honor those whom centuries of discriminatory policy have disrespected.

Click here for more information on how you and your faith community can honor Indigenous People’s Day and work to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery.

I also invite you to help me to honor my cultural heritage—with all of its complicated and messy parts—by helping me to decolonize our faith. Together, we can reject those parts of our faith that are rooted in the superiority of one group of people and embrace a radically inclusive, all-encompassing love. I invite you to practice love with me this Indigenous Peoples Day.

In faith,


Rev. Dr. Michael Tino
Minister, Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Northern Westchester
Board of Trustees, Unitarian Universalist Association

PS: For more information on the history & significance of the resolution repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery, watch this interview that I did with our partner organization Tonatierra:

The message above went out on Thursday, September 13, 2012 to Standing on the Side of Love supporters. You can sign-up for these emails here.

2 Responses to “Decolonizing Our Faith”

  1. Roger Fritts says:

    FRom Roger Fritts, Minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church in Sarasota Florida: A few years ago, the members of the Unitarian Church of South Australia, in Adelaide, placed a brass sign on the front of their church. It says “we acknowledge the Kaurna people as the original custodians of this land.” “Kaurna” is the name of the aborigine people who once lived in what is now Adelaide.

    Who was on the Sarasota Unitarian Universalist church land before us? Archaeological research says that the current sea level has existed for five thousand years. Large mounds of discarded shells and fish bones attest to the prehistoric human settlements. The Tocobaga lived near Sarasota in small villages at the northern end of Tampa Bay. The Caloosa lived on the sandy shores of the southwest coast of Florida and controlled most of south Florida. The population of the Caloosa may have reached as many as 50,000 people. After 1513, most of the Tocobaga and the Caloosa died of infectious diseases carried by the Spanish such as smallpox and measles. These diseases wiped out entire villages.

    The Seminole Indians moved from Georgia and Alabama into Florida during the Spanish occupation. I do not know if there were any Seminole in Sarasota. Tensions grew between the Seminole and the European settlers, leading to a series of conflicts known as the Seminole Wars (1818-1858). During the wars, most Seminoles were forced to move to Oklahoma.

    If we were to place a brass sign on our church building, acknowledging the peoples who lived here before we arrived, what would it say? Perhaps “We acknowledge the Tocobaga, Caloosa and Seminole people as the original custodians of this land.”

  2. my 8 yr old wrote a paper to all UU children in this country to educate them about the truth of Columbus Day.
    How can he submit his writting to the UU community to Stand on the Side of Love?

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