Land Back

Returning American Public Lands to Native American Tribes

Executive Summary

The historical injustices faced by Native American tribes in the United States are rooted in centuries-old policies and doctrines that have facilitated their displacement and the expropriation of their lands. One significant basis for these actions was the Doctrine of Discovery, a principle originating from papal bulls issued by the Catholic Church in the 15th century, which has since been invalidated. In order to align with the ethical and moral values of a Judeo-Christian society, it is imperative for the United States to initiate reforms that return public lands to Native American tribes.

The Doctrine of Discovery and Its Invalidation

The Doctrine of Discovery, primarily derived from the papal bull "Inter Caetera" issued by Pope Alexander VI in 1493, provided Christian explorers the right to claim lands inhabited by non-Christians. This doctrine was later adopted into U.S. law through landmark Supreme Court cases such as Johnson v. M'Intosh (1823), which laid the foundation for the legal justification of the displacement of Native American tribes.

In recent years, there has been growing recognition of the invalidity and injustice of the Doctrine of Discovery. In 2010, the Episcopal Church formally repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery, urging its members to support the rights of Indigenous peoples. Similarly, in 2016, Pope Francis acknowledged the wrongs committed under the guise of this doctrine, reinforcing its invalidation.

The Moral and Ethical Imperative for Reform

As a nation that often proclaims its Judeo-Christian values, the United States has a moral obligation to address and rectify the historical injustices inflicted upon Native American tribes. These values emphasize justice, stewardship, and the dignity of all human beings. By returning public lands to Native American tribes, the U.S. can take a significant step towards reconciliation and healing.

  1. Justice: The concept of justice in Judeo-Christian teachings calls for rectifying wrongs and restoring fairness. Returning lands to their original stewards is a tangible act of justice.

  2. Stewardship: The Biblical principle of stewardship highlights the responsibility of caring for the Earth. Native American tribes have historically maintained a harmonious relationship with the land, and their stewardship can contribute to the preservation and protection of these lands.

  3. Dignity: Recognizing and respecting the inherent dignity of Native American tribes aligns with the Christian principle of honoring every individual's humanity.

Proposed Reforms

  1. Legal and Policy Revisions: Amend federal policies and laws to facilitate the transfer of public lands back to Native American tribes, prioritizing lands that hold cultural, historical, and spiritual significance.

  2. Collaboration with Tribes: Establish a federal commission to work in partnership with Native American tribes to identify and prioritize the lands for transfer, ensuring that the process respects tribal sovereignty and self-determination.

  3. Education and Awareness: Promote educational initiatives to raise awareness about the historical context of land dispossession and the significance of the Doctrine of Discovery, fostering a broader societal commitment to these reforms.


The return of public lands to Native American tribes is not only a matter of correcting historical wrongs but also a reflection of the United States' commitment to its proclaimed values. By repudiating the legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery and embracing these reforms, America can move closer to embodying the principles of justice, stewardship, and human dignity that are central to a Judeo-Christian ethos. This is a critical step towards a more just and equitable society for all.

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