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Race & Demographics

How One Chief Justice Used The Church To Dispossess Natives From Their Land

Cover of the book, 'Legal Genealogy of Native American Dispossession,' by George D. Pappas.
Credit Courtesy of George D. Pappas
Cover of the book, 'Legal Genealogy of Native American Dispossession,' by George D. Pappas.

One of the founding principles of the U.S. government is the separation of church and state. Yet there are many unseen ways in which the religion of America’s founders was baked into the legal system. Immigration attorney George Pappas traces the impact of religious doctrine on land rights in his new book “The Literary and Legal Genealogy of Native American Dispossession: The Marshall Trilogy Cases” (Routledge/2017). 

Pappas begins his analysis in the 1400s when the pope gave the kings of Spain and Portugal the right to invade, capture and subdue any pagans who were considered enemies of Christ. Early settlers were allowed to enslave them and take dominion over their land.

This religious directive became the Doctrine of Discovery accepted as law by the Europeans that colonized America.  This doctrine was later referred to in multiple legal rulings proceeded over by Supreme Court Chief Justice John James Marshall to dispossess Native Americans from their land.

Pappas talks to Frank Stasio about the three central rulings that govern Native American land rights and why he believes they are so problematic. They are also joined by Janelle Adair. She's a Cherokee storyteller and a member of the United Keetoowah Band Cherokee Indians of Oklahoma. She shares stories of how being forced from their land resulted in the massive loss of language, culture, and cultural connection. 

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