Doctrine of Discovery

The ‘Doctrine of Discovery’ was a European idea, coming from the thinking of religious leaders in the 1400s about how aboriginal people should be treated in the ‘New World.’ The Doctrine was formalized in the writings of Francisco de Vitoria (1483 – 1546), a Spanish Roman Catholic theologian and political thinker. Vitoria is sometimes referred to as the ‘father of international law.’ The interpretation of the Doctrine of Discovery is the international root of Federal Indian law in the United States.

The Doctrine recognized that the aboriginal inhabitants of the New World were people who had claims to the land that they occupied. Each European nation ‘discovering’ land in the New World would decide how to deal with the people who were already living there. The British made treaties with the Indians for example, indicating that they had special rights. The Spanish  ‘conquered’ the Indians in Central and South America, and did not recognize any special land or other rights of the aboriginal tribes.

In the U.S. the Doctrine of Discovery was interpreted to mean that there would be a federal recognition of Indian tribes, and settlement of lands and subsistence resources with the tribes. In the Lower 48 states, aboriginal land claims were mainly done through treaty-making with the Indians. Congress ended the practice of treaty-making in 1871, shortly after Alaska was purchased from the Russians. One hundred years later, Alaska Native land claims were settled by Congress through the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (1971).