What Does the Doctrine of Discovery Have to Do With Environmental Justice?

by Zoé Edgecomb, ASLA

Americae sive qvartae orbis partis nova et exactissima descriptio. At the time European monarchs began granting lands of the New World to their subjects, geography was a young science, and land surveying as we know it had not yet been invented. / image: Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division

We need a history lesson

To really understand the American landscape, you need to know about the Doctrine of Discovery. As a set of principles used to justify European colonization, it grew over hundreds of years to become a pillar of international law, and it set the stage for centuries of imperialism worldwide.

These days, most people agree that not everyone benefited from the process of U.S. colonization. White settlers broke treaties with Native American nations, drove the buffalo nearly to extirpation, and ripped children from their mothers to be sold as slaves in the service of cotton production. But unless you’re Native American, it’s likely you’ve never heard of “Discovery.” ASLA’s position on environmental justice calls on us to address unequal distribution of resources related to land, including clean air, water, and food. The colonialist Doctrine of Discovery is at the root of unequal distribution in the United States, and for that reason it’s essential that we know about it.

Accounts vary as to the exact beginning of the doctrine, but it’s clear that a few papal bulls (essentially letters from the Pope) had a critical role in its establishment. In 1455, Pope Nicholas V issued Romanus Pontifex, giving Portugal the right to colonize the African Coast. Portugal was encouraged to “invade, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens, pagans, and other enemies of Christ, to put them into perpetual slavery, and to take away all their possessions and property.” [An English translation of this text can be found online. The printed Latin text can be accessed here. The bull itself resides in the National Archives at Lisbon.] Similar bulls followed, dividing the “New World” between Portugal and Castilian Spain, and eventually setting in motion the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

Descripcion de las Indias Ocidentalis. 1634 map showing the line that divided the ‘New World’ between Spain and Portugal. Originally described in a bull in 1493, the line was revised and formalized in the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas. / image: courtesy of John Carter Brown Library

Later, Protestant colonizers found their own mandate for colonization in the Bible. They imagined themselves as bringing salvation to native souls and making a barren wilderness fruitful. The kings and queens of England borrowed the Popes’ religious language to grant tracts of land they had never visited. While English common lands were quickly being enclosed and privatized, the “new” continent became a proving ground in a massive experiment in individual ownership of land.

After they shrugged off their own status as colonial subjects, U.S. settlers relied on a distinction between “Christians” and “heathens” to justify further expansion into Indian territory. In 1823, Justice John Marshall’s Johnson v. M’Intosh ruling said it this way: “…discovery gave title to the government by whose subjects, or by whose authority, it was made…which title might be consummated by possession…the character and religion of [the original] inhabitants afforded an apology for considering them as a people over whom the superior genius of Europe might claim an ascendency.” In other words, finders keepers, as long as the original owners were perceived as pagans. This judgment became the basis for the Indian Removal Act of 1830, in which thousands of Native Americans were forcefully marched away from their homelands. And it didn’t stop there: allotment, industrialization, and even the creation of the National Park System chipped away at Indian landholdings and sovereignty over the following centuries (Spence, Mark David. Dispossessing the Wilderness: Indian Removal and the Making of the National Parks. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999). The legacy of the discovery precedent continues today, as corporations, government entities, and private citizens insist that Native Americans rights must give way to the “greater good” of pipelines, mining, and ranching.

This is all fairly common knowledge among the two percent of American citizens who are also Native American. Robert Miller and Steven Newcomb—Native America, Discovered and Conquered: Thomas Jefferson, Lewis and Clark, and Manifest Destiny and Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Discovery, respectively—have written books about the doctrine from a law perspective, and it figures prominently in Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States. But for the most part, students don’t learn about the mechanics of land theft—whether at the grade school level or in most landscape architecture programs. It just doesn’t fit well in the narrative of rugged individuals conquering an empty wilderness as the Indians ‘died out.’

Carte du theatre de la guerre presente en Amerique. Created by a French company in 1779, this map included an illustration of a native American woman, ironically holding a staff topped by a ‘Liberty cap’, an early American symbol of freedom. / image: courtesy of John Carter Brown Library

With the help of the series of bulls and court decisions making up the Doctrine of Discovery, the idea that Christian conquerors had a right to occupy and own Indigenous lands became embedded in the national consciousness. The Doctrine of Discovery allowed Europeans to decide the fate of most of the land. It allowed massive transfer of land from communal ownership by Indian nations to individual ownership by white colonizers. ‘Discovery’ buttressed the idea that land is a resource to be used, an investment. Wealth, embodied in land and other assets, became concentrated among white settlers and their progeny. And those progeny were among our first clients. Their story is the one most of us learned and accepted.

Whatever form your practice takes, it ultimately involves land. And ‘Discovery’ shaped the land. It defined the political boundaries we work within, and it influences how the land is used, its ecology, and our attitudes toward owning it—whether or not we’re aware of the doctrine’s existence.

The ecological systems many of us are working hard to support have been altered heavily through European settlement. Sometimes the change took the form of mass deforestation for timber and agriculture. In the case of the slaughtering to near-extinction of the buffalo, it was an attempt to eliminate a keystone species in order to destroy both the food source and the spirit of whole nations of people. Today, profit-driven development encourages sprawl and land degradation. Over time, the ‘advanced civilization’ nourished by extractive technologies and market capitalism has resulted in industrial-scale pollution of water and air, and poisoned people, animals and plants with toxic and radioactive chemicals.

Where we can go from here

Landscape architects can start by informing ourselves. Start by reading some of the literature by Native authors. If you’re a plants person, Robin Wall Kimmerer, a botanist and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, beautifully melds indigenous and European concepts of science in her collection of essays called Braiding Sweetgrass. Tommy Orange takes us off the reservation and into urban Oakland in his novel There There. If you’re into podcasts, Rebecca Nagle’s “This Land” is a must-listen.

We can tell more complete stories. As our Poet Laureate Joy Harjo has said of her fellow Native Americans, “America does not have a story without us, yet we are often denied a place in the larger narrative. Without our voices, there is no real America possible” (“Erasure,” by Joy Harjo). Where we have the opportunity to provide site interpretation, we can go beyond the arrowheads and potsherds of ancient history. Native Americans are real, living people, closer by than you might think, and not always on the ‘res.’ For a wide-ranging meditation on landscape architecture’s relationship with indigeneity, read Rod Barnett’s article “Designing Indian Country.”

Put indigenous connection to the land we live on at the forefront. When you visit the website of the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection, the intro page thanks the Monacan People on whose traditional land the museum is located. This type of land acknowledgement is increasingly common in Canada (Lonetree, Amy. Decolonizing Museums: Representing Native America in National and Tribal Museums. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012). What if landscape architects did something similar in articles and promotional materials about our projects? Considering that we have databases to find out exactly what plants are native to any given region, we should be able to construct a similar knowledge base to understand who the displaced human residents are.

Speak to a wider audience. This might seem like something we’re already doing, but if you approach our works and our texts from different perspectives, you realize we have a long way to go. For instance, think about the fact that much of the U.S. was Mexico before 1848. Remember that most of our neighborhoods and even our parks were conceived as segregated spaces until fairly recently.

We can broaden our concept of who we are working for, and seek collaboration where possible. Brenda Williams, ASLA, a historic preservation landscape architect with Quinn Evans Architects, has collaborated with Tribal Nations on numerous projects involving culturally significant sites. She created a list of suggestions for working with Native communities, the most important of which involve showing up and talking with people face-to-face.

Support efforts in your area. Certainly, we can sign petitions to make sure sacred spaces such as Bears Ears National Monument are not sacrificed to corporate greed. But we can also offer our expertise at a smaller scale. Here in Central Virginia, the Monacan Nation is fighting a project to build a pumping station on the site of their historic capital, Rassawek. Landscape architects involved in historic preservation are often well-versed in permitting processes and the bureaucracy of building on historic sites. Every informed voice will help in the struggle.

We can also reframe advocacy for public lands, seeing them not just as sites for recreation and preservation of ‘wilderness’, but as places that still rightfully belong to Native Americans. We can do our best to ensure that Indigenous people still have access to important places and cultural resources, such as plants critical to material production and traditional diet, and habitat essential to animals who are considered part of the community.

Listen. Realize that while empirical thinking and market capitalism are dominant modes of thinking, they’re not the only ones, and quite possibly not the best ones. Try to honor ways of thinking that do not see humans as separate from the land, and move away from seeing land as a commodity wherever possible. Tweaking our attitudes a little bit might even make the profession more attractive to the people whose land this has been for millennia. As we work toward environmental justice, we can learn from Native landscape architects and students, as the colonists would have been wise to learn from the people they called savages.

Zoé Edgecomb, ASLA, is a landscape architect and visual artist practicing in Charlottesville, VA. She is currently working on a project called “UnNatural Law” exploring beliefs and ideas about land in the context of colonization.

7 thoughts on “What Does the Doctrine of Discovery Have to Do With Environmental Justice?

  1. Kaitlin Hakanson January 30, 2020 / 10:33 am

    Great piece. You’re exactly right that these basic historical facts are rarely discussed, especially not in fields of study involving land ownership in North America. Keep up the great work!

  2. Carl Hollander January 31, 2020 / 9:19 am

    Thank you for the invitation to read this and comment! The nature of this topic interests me. If I am reading correctly, my understanding is that you’re, in the way that you are able, ultimately trying to make right the wrongs done by early European settlers in what we call America. I applaud that proactivity! Do you think that if we redefine market capitalism it can coexist with the reality that humans are connected with the land and vice-versa?

    • Zoe Edgecomb February 7, 2020 / 9:57 am

      Good to hear from you Carl! Thanks for your comments. I wish I had an answer to the question about redefining market capitalism. There are so many ways it’s not working, but I don’t know how we change it. I feel like we need a whole new system, but I’m certainly not the one to invent it. I do think that strengthening peoples’ connection to the land is a good step no matter what the economic future holds!

  3. Kristen Lohse January 31, 2020 / 12:09 pm

    Great article–very thought-provoking. I will incorporate these tips!

  4. Ronald Melchert January 31, 2020 / 1:24 pm

    Well written and presented. As a Native American Registered Landscape Architect we wrestle with development on the land and hopefully strive to embrace what the eye cannot see. How do we do that you ask. Your spirit needs to be connected to begin with. A realization or ah ha moment in my formative years of learning the discipline of what is a landscape architect, I came to realize that they are trying to teach me to be “native” or an indian. Wow! I was already there.

    • Zoe Edgecomb February 7, 2020 / 10:05 am

      Thank you! I don’t have Native heritage, but the more I learn, the more I realize how strong a precedent Native American, as well as many other Indigenous peoples’ thoughts about land are for my own. We’re part of nature, not separate from it. What firm do you work with? I would love to talk more.

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