Terra Nullus and Other Inanity: How Christianity Rubber Stamped The North American Landgrab

Medieval European empires are intimately connected to the plight of Native Americans through history.  The million skeletons of hundreds of genocides across the continent began as policy in the court of one European king or another.  Christianity and its authorities were entwined with every step of this process.  The early incarnations of the G6 European nations all understood themselves primarily as Christian nations. These nations saw the efficacy of their conquests as heaven sent.

This narcissism of believing themselves the pinnacle of civilization combined with a greed for riches to be gained from plundering indigenous cultures around the globe. The US is a continued evolution of a pyramid scheme of power, a way of structuring an empire that goes all the way back to Constantine.  Though it evolved over time from Feudalistic Divine Right, to Mercantilism to Modern Capitalism, the system of destruction, subjugation and domination changed very little.  Decrees, attitudes, doctrines that were promoted in the past are what shape the legal reality of the present for Native Americans.

Take for example the papal bull of Alexander VI, issued in 1493, which states:

“We by the authority of Almighty God granted unto us in Saint Peter, and by the office which we bear on the earth in the stead of Jesus Christ, do for ever by the tenour of these presents, give, grant, and assign’ to you, your heirs and successors (the Kings of Castile and Legion), all these lands and islands,with their dominions, territories, cities, castles, towers, places, and villages, with all the right and jurisdiction thereunto pertaining : constituting, assigning, and deputing you, your heirs and successors, the lords thereof, with full and free power, authority, and jurisdiction. Decreeing, nevertheless, by this our donation, grant, and assignation, that from no Christian Prince, who actually hath possessed the aforesaid islands and main lands unto the day of the nativity of our Lord aforesaid, their right obtained to be understood hereby to be taken away, or that it ought to be taken away.” (1493)

Here empire and Christianity, like a two headed snake, have looked after each other’s interests. No one but a Christian king can own lands. If no Christian king currently owns a land, then the land is open to settlement by the first envoys of a Christian king who discovers it.

This perspective of lands being void unless Christians hold it goes back to a ridiculous doctrine called Terra Nullius. In the margins of the bible, animals used to be drawn. These were the creatures mentioned in the story of Noah’s ark, saved from the great flood.

Terra Nullius was an amazing bit of reasoning that said if a land had creatures other than those mentioned in the Noah’s ark story, the land was lifeless and void.

All the new world was declared to be terra nullius, and therefore open to whatever Christian king claimed it.

Never mind that if Mediterranean creatures were a measure of whether a land had a legitimate dominion, Europe would have been found as void and open for claiming as were the Americas.

Yet this is the weird and shaky ground any European claim to American land rests on.  That the G6 European nations and later America saw their conquests as part of Christian history and justified by Christian doctrine is incontestable. These assumptions are even written into the treaties of the time. For example, the Louisiana Purchase was practically brokered through the Catholic church. As it states in article one of the treaty between the United States and the French Republic:

“The first consul of the French Republic desiring to give to the United States a strong proof of his friendship doth hereby cede to the United States (…) the said territory with all its rights and appurtenances as fully and in the same manner they have been acquired by the French Republic in virtue of the above mentioned treaty concluded with his Catholic Majesty” (Louisiana Purchase Treaty).

Later, the treaty goes on to mention in article three that:

“the inhabitants of the ceded territory shall be incorporated in the Union of the United States and admitted as soon as possible according to the principles of the federal constitution (…)” (Louisiana Purchase Treaty).

Such statements are useful to see how Christianity viewed itself as enthroned over the cultures of the world, with the clout to dictate what was to be done with non-Christian peoples.

The G6 European nations, and later America, were the instruments of the assertion of Christian dominion.  Governments changed, as did the Christian religion itself after the reformation. Yet all these changes should be viewed as merely mutations on the system of empire.

A legacy stretches from America to Constantine, a legacy of the pyramid structuring of society as rings of classes, with the ruling class at the top steering everything. When the reservations were established, all land belonging to Native Americans was put under trust responsibility.  Basically, this meant the US government would hold the property for Natives, and act in their interest as if Natives were perpetual wards of the state.

This arrangement was built on a policy informed by Christian hubris.  It goes back to assumptions present since terra nullius was declared.  Namely, that only Christians could be land owners. Today, the arrangement is stated in secular terms, but it has this undeniable stench of Christian narcissism and imperial oppression underneath.  As one scholar notes:

“After colonizers cast their imperial gaze through lenses made of the elastic ideology of “City Upon a Hill”, “Manifest Destiny”, “Young America”, and “White Man’s Burden”, most Euro-Americans rationalized a history and present in survival of the fittest terms” (Duncan, 1998).

The age of Christian empires has set the conditions for the reservation institutions we see today.