(Kenneth Deer, right, had a private audience with Pope Francis at the Vatican in May. Photo courtesy: Kenneth Deer)
APTN National News
ROME— A senior Roman Catholic Church official is considering a request from Indigenous leaders to rescind the 15th century church decrees that formed the legal basis for colonialism.
Kahnawake Mohawk Kenneth Deer, a representative of the Haudenosaunee External Relations Committee, which represents the Iroquois Confederacy Council on international matters, was part of a delegation – that called itself the Long March to Rome — that attended the May 4 meeting with senior members of the Catholic Church.
The meeting followed a short, face-to-face encounter in Vatican City with Pope Francis.
Each Wednesday, the pope greets the public in St. Peter’s Square. There were approximately 20,000 people present on May 4, Deer said.
The delegation wanted the meeting on that date because it was the anniversary of one of the papal bulls of discovery, decrees issued by the pope of the day which lent the church’s approval to the colonization of lands because they were “terra nullius” or lands empty of Christian people.
The pope appeared on a stage and addressed the crowd.
The Long March to Rome delegation was invited to sit on the stage and await their short face-to-face, individual meetings with the pontiff.
The delegation issued a press release saying they were seeking revocation of three papal bulls because: “They were the ‘blueprint’ for conquest of the New World; they provided moral justification for the enslavement and conquest of Indigenous peoples worldwide; they are an ongoing violation of contemporary human rights legislation; and other communities currently struggling to save their lands are threatened by modern-day ideologies of inequality anchored in the papal bulls.”
The original plan was for representatives of Indigenous nations around the world to assemble in Paris and actually march to Rome to demand a meeting with the pope, raising awareness of the issue as they progressed.
But as negotiations with Vatican officials got more serious, the plan was changed. A smaller delegation met in Florence, about 300 km north of Rome, to wait and see if the meeting in the Italian capital would happen.
David McKinnon, a Canadian lawyer who now resides in Amsterdam, worked closely with the Indigenous leaders to push for a meeting with the pope. The group had been working towards that day for more than a year.
The call finally came the day before and the 11 delegates then made their way south.
“The leaders were determined to tell Pope Francis that it was time for the Vatican to own up to its responsibility for legitimizing a genocide committed against Indigenous peoples and to show its good faith by revoking three Papal Bulls of Discovery: Dum Diversas (1452), Romanus Pontifex (1455) and Inter Caetera (1493), still in force today,” the delegation’s press release states.
Claiming they carried the weight of 370 million Indigenous Peoples on their shoulders, the delegation says it represented the Haudenosaunee, also known as the Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy, the Assembly of First Nations, representing 634 First Nations from across Canada with 1.4 million citizens from 58 different Indigenous nations, Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the Umatilla confederacy of the Pacific Northwest, the Yakama, Oglala Sioux, Shawnee, Mapuche, Navajo Diné and Apache Ndee.
Kenneth Deer set the scene for APTN National News. He first met with a priest who served as the pope’s interpreter.
“When he came up to me I told him we were going to talk about the papal bulls that make up the doctrine of discovery and we want the pope’s support to rescind it because states are still using it today. And right away he got very defensive and said, ‘Well that was a long time ago and we already rescinded them and it’s not necessary to say anything because we’re not using them to dispossess Indigenous people.’ I said, ‘That may be so but states are still using them today in court cases. In the United States and Canada they continue to use the papal bulls to dispossess and disempower Indigenous people,’” Deer told APTN. “So he said OK. When it was our turn to see the pope, the first two were [former Truth and Reconciliation Commissioner] Willie Littlechild and [former South Thompson Indian Band Chief] Keith Matthew. And they talked to him about the bulls as well.”
Then it was Deer’s turn.
“I greeted him and we shook hands and I told him that we want his support to rescind the papal bulls that make up the doctrine of discovery because states are still using it today,” said Deer.
“The pope was very kind. He kept eye contact and he was very attentive. And all he said was ‘I will pray for you.’ That’s the only thing he said. And he gave me a little red box with a set of rosaries in it. And that was it.”
Then it was time to get down to business.
“Right from there, then we got whisked to the little compound in Rome. It’s not in the Vatican City. There’s not enough room,” he said.
“The most important part of May 4 was meeting with the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. There we met with Cardinal Silvano Tomasi, who is the chair. And that was the key meeting. That was the meeting where we addressed the whole issue of the papal bulls and the doctrine of discovery. That was key. That was the original intent. That was the original appointment,” he said.
At first it appeared the archbishop was not going to listen to the Indigenous leaders.
“At first when he first started he started giving the usual spiel that the papal bulls are no longer in effect, that they’ve been superseded by other papal bulls and there was no need for us to do anything. Then we interrupted him to do an opening prayer,” Deer said. “Then we did introductions around the table and then we got into the issues. By the time we had done with him he was changing his position. At the end he said, ‘Maybe the Vatican does have to make a statement. We have to consider making a statement.’”
That was a very significant choice of words, Deer said.
“He didn’t say rescind, he said abolish – a much stronger word – he said we have to abolish the papal bulls and that maybe there should be an apology from the pope,” he added.
That was more than the delegation had asked for.
“We didn’t ask for an apology. I’m not a big fan of apologies. I need something stronger than that,” Deer said. “Then he said they would need to have further meetings on this to discuss . . . we’d like to discuss what kind of statement he would make. So he was open to that idea. He committed himself to meetings but he wouldn’t commit about when and where because he wasn’t prepared for that when we came in there.”
The group feels they got what they travelled to Rome to get.
“We thought that was the most significant part of the whole trip was Tomasi saying that maybe we should make a statement,” said Deer.
The message has reached the ears of one of the most highly placed clerics in the church. Archbishop Tomasi has been mentioned as a possible candidate to succeed Francis when the time comes, Deer said.
“That’s what I’ve heard. And he’s a good friend of the pope, a confidante of Pope Francis. And some of us knew him because he was stationed in Geneva for few years. So he’s familiar with some of us. So I thought that was amazingly significant,” he added.
The process of working towards the goal of getting rid of the roots of the colonial era has commenced, Deer said.
“The other thing he wanted was to get more information about how states are using the doctrine of discovery today. So we’ll have to send him some documents how the Canadian government is using them in their court cases. And apparently they’ve been using them as recently as last year from what I’m hearing,” he said.
Deer acknowledged that the idea gained strength because this pope seems more open to dealing with the matter than his predecessors.
“I think the people felt that if there’s a pope that’s going to do anything it’ll be this one,” he said.
Deer said Canadian lawyer David MacKinnon worked for more than year to make the meeting happen. Deer praised MacKinnon’s “tenacity in getting the appointment with the pontifical council.”
“In the end he didn’t go to the meeting because he wanted us to take the lead,” he said.
The Indigenous leaders are now waiting to see if Tomasi will follow through with action.
Deer said that when he sees how hard it is to get that second meeting he’ll get a better idea of the church’s sincerity.