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Indigenous Peoples and Columbus Monuments: The Doctrine of Discovery

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Warm greetings to everyone gathered here today.


My original name is Gaen hia uh, my colonized name is Betty Lyons and I am a proud citizen of the Onondaga Nation and President of the American Indian Law Alliance.


I want to begin by acknowledging the original peoples of these territories, the Lenape Peoples. My own people, the Haudenosaunee also had influence on these territories–and we still do today.

I want to thank all the members of the NYC Mayoral Advisory Commission on City Art, Monuments, and Markers. I want to acknowledge my Mohawk sister Dr. Audra Simpson, as well as Dr. John Tchen, Executive Director of NYU’s Asian/Pacific/American Institute, and Associate Professor at NYU, who has hosted many Indigenous events at the A/P/A Institute.

With my short time, I would like to shine some light on the best kept secret in American history–the ‘Doctrine of Discovery.’ And I would like to talk about how the monuments to Christopher Columbus, and the celebration of Christopher Columbus keeps this secret hidden.

The U.S. system of land title is rooted in centuries old documents from the Vatican–the Catholic Church, known as papal bulls. Collectively, they are known as the ‘Doctrine of Discovery.’ The first papal bull (an edict from the Pope similar to a Presidential Order) of the Doctrine is titled “Terra Nullius,” (1095 AD) and states that any land in which Christians do not live is declared “empty” and open to conquest. These papal bulls gave Europeans the justification to “invade, conquer, fight, subjugate” Indigenous Peoples around the world. While these documents were written centuries ago, the U.S. Supreme Court has cited the Doctrine of Discovery to deny land rights to the Oneida Nation as recently as 2005 AD. This is not history. Claims that Columbus was simply a man from the past, out of step with today’s values ignoring the fact that this is ongoing. This is not in the past.


Continuing to celebrate Columbus, and leaving monuments of him up is the continued act of erasure to ensure that “Americans” will never be educated on the reality of our harsh shared history. The Papal Bulls set forth a mindset and perception that Indigenous Peoples such as myself were not human therefore not equal to all other peoples.
The statues depicting Columbus ignore his enslavement and massacre of Indigenous Peoples, and the promotion of sex slavery of children, as young as 9 years old. These are NOT merely a ‘difference of opinion,’ these are historical facts and they are taken directly from Columbus’ own diary entries and journals. This is not someone worthy of a monument or of celebration.


Columbus began the imposition of the Doctrine of Discovery, which supposedly granted European settlers sovereignty over non-Christian lands “discovered” by their explorers. That continues to provide the legal underpinning of the denial of land rights to our Indigenous Peoples. Columbus set off the genocide of our peoples. Columbus also opened the way for the trans-Atlantic slave trade.


It is easier for ” Americans” to continue the belief that the “Americas,” known to us as Turtle Island, was uninhabited then to face the realities of genocide, attacks on the environment, the stealing of our lands and the enslavement of our peoples and those brought here to be enslaved.


We are not asking for reconciliation as it is not possible to reconcile all that has been done but you can make a conscientious choice to do the right thing as these unspeakable horrors and many more are not deserving of celebration. We are asking the monuments of Columbus be moved to a museum, where they can be placed in accurate historical context for future generations to learn from. These monuments to hate must come down now!

AILA Testimony to the NYC Mayoral Advisory Commission on City Art, Monuments, and Markers.  Testimony of Gaen hia uh, Betty Lyons (Onondaga Nation, Snipe Clan), speaking as President of the American Indian Law Alliance ( http://www.aila.ngo/ ).  Presented at the Bronx hearing on Monday, November 27, 2017 at Bronx Borough Hall