The Doctrine of Discovery, a group of 500-year-old decrees issued by a series of popes in the 1400s that legitimized the domination of non-Christian people, is not really Northfield's problem, but it should be of the community's interest, according to organizers of a Thursday fundraiser.

Dorothea Hrossowyc, a Northfield resident, is leading a fundraiser set for 7 p.m. Thursday at the Carelton College Weitz Center, to help a group of indigenous St. Paul high school students heading to the Vatican in May. The students, along with teacher Mitch Walking Elk, an enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes of Oklahoma, will ask that the 'bulls' (papal decrees) be rescinded. 

Hrossowyc has known Walking Elk for a few years and has previously raised awareness about Native American rights and issues in Northfield. When she heard what the teacher and his students are trying to accomplish, she wanted to help.

"It’s shocking what the Doctrine of Discovery allows for, so when I heard Mitch had an audience with the Pope, I knew that was historic. I knew it was important to get these kids to Rome," she said. "As a Christian person, I don’t want my faith to stand for domination and dehumanization of any native peoples."

The Doctrine of Discovery, according to critics, gave European explorers rights to take whatever lands they discovered. And if the people of those lands refused to embrace Christianity, they were liable to be enslaved or even executed.

The philosophies of the doctrine were instituted in America as well, according to Walking Elk, specifically during the settlement of lands farther and farther west. And in an 1823 Supreme Court case, Johnson v. M'Intosh, Chief Justice John Marshall used the doctrine as an explanation of the way in which colonial powers laid claim to newly discovered laws. Later decisions, including the 2005 decision in City of Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation of N.Y., further cemented the doctrine's power in United States law.

"Justice Marshall decreed that Indians didn’t have the right to own land, only the right to occupancy, like animals," Walking Elk said. "The United States has been using this Doctrine of Discovery before and since."

Walking Elk teaches indigenous students within the St. Paul School District at Guadalupe Program Area School. His program focuses on ceremonial Native American culture. When he and the students watched the film "Doctrine of Discovery: Unmasking the Domination Code," learning more about the history of the decrees, they decided they wanted to do something about it.

A person with connections to the Vatican reached out to Walking Elk and served as a liaison, helping the group obtain an audience with Vatican officials. Whether Pope Francis will attend remains to be determined, but the group's request — to rescind the decrees — will be forwarded to the pontiff, regardless.

Nine youth and five adults are making the trip, adding up to a total cost of somewhere between $30,000 to $35,000. The group has already raised $25,000. Northfield organizers hope the fundraiser at Carleton will add to that total. Walking Elk and some of the students will speak at the event. There will be music, food and a viewing of the "Doctrine of Discovery" documentary.

"I hope the event will encourage people to respond from their hearts and support these students," Hrossowyc said. "I feel hopeful when I think about what young people are doing these days when they stand up and say ‘This isn’t right.’"

For Hrossowyc and other involved Northfield residents, this is an issue of justice and morality. For Walking Elk and his students, this issue is tied to strong personal emotions.

"When you reflect on everything that has happened to the original people of this land, it can make a person very angry," he said. "You have to get control of that and move beyond it and take that anger and put it into positive action. You have to learn diplomacy as well. We're grateful for all the support we've gained in the Twin Cities and Northfield and beyond."

Reach Associate Editor Philip Weyhe at 507-645-1115 or follow him on Twitter @nfnphilweyhe.

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Northfield News and Faribault Daily News reporter. Email at [email protected]com. Call at 507-333-3132.

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