13 Grandmas Bring Pleas to the Pope


Thirteen indigenous grandmothers from around the world will arrive at the Vatican today (Wednesday, July 9) to ask the pope to end more than five centuries of “power and domination” over indigenous people.

“We carry this message for Pope Benedict XVI, traveling with the spirits of our ancestors,” said the women in a statement to the pope. “While praying at the Vatican for peace, we are praying for all peoples. We are here at the Vatican, humbly, not as representatives of indigenous nations, but as women of prayer.”

The International Council of Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers will gather in St. Peter’s Square for prayer in the morning. They also plan to deliver a 632-word statement to the pope asking him to repeal three Christian-based doctrines of “discovery” and “conquest” that set the foundation to claim land occupied by indigenous people around the world.

The grandmothers said the documents — a series of papal bulls written by the Catholic church beginning in the 1400s — continue to affect indigenous peoples on all continents. The papal bulls “set into motion perceptions and relationships based on power and domination that are still the basis of legal systems all around the globe,” according to the council.

The trip to Rome isn’t the grandmothers’ first attempt to reach out to Vatican officials. In 2005, they asked Cardinal Walter Kasper in a letter to recognize the rights of indigenous peoples. But the Vatican has never publicly acknowledged that the church’s documents laid the foundation to destroy indigenous cultures and land bases, said Steven Newcomb, co-founder of the Indigenous Law Institute in San Diego, Calif.

“Those documents provide a template and cornerstone to federal Indian law and policy and the way it has been developed in the United States and other nation states through the use of the doctrine of Christian discovery and dominion,” Newcomb said.

The United States, Canada, New Zealand and Australia are among the countries whose treatment of indigenous peoples is “directly tied to the papal bulls,” said Newcomb, author of “Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery.”

The U.S. Supreme Court in 1823 declared the European “discovery” of inhabited land “gave exclusive title to those who made it.” In the United States, for example, Indians were allowed to remain on the land once others discovered it, but Natives could not control it without federal approval. Today, the Interior Department holds 55 million acres of Indian land “in trust” for American Indians, a system that puts politicians and government bureaucrats in charge of managing the land, including collecting money for any income earned from it.

Newcomb said if the pope were to revoke the papal bulls, it would end a pattern of domination that continues to “plague the planet to this day,” including genocide and ecological devastation.

Meanwhile, the council of grandmothers was aware they might not be allowed to meet with the pope, who canceled a scheduled public appearance today. Still, the women were prepared to perform and participate in traditional ceremonies. “Setting a prayer down there will pave the way for future dialogue,” said Janet Weber, an assistant to the council.

The women’s council represents several regions from around the world, including the mountains, deserts and rainforests of Africa, Central America, Asia and North America.

The grandmothers from the United States are Agnes Baker Pilgrim, of the Takelma Siletz in Grants Pass, Margaret Behan of the Arapaho/Cheyenne of Montana, Beatrice Long Visitor Holy Dance and Rita Long Visitor Holy Dance, both of Black Hills, S.D.

While in Rome, the grandmothers will be praying for healing of the Earth, all its inhabitants and for the children of the next seven generations. They hope to see an end to the “unprecedented destruction of our Mother Earth and the destruction of indigenous ways of life.”

The planet is in ecological “dire straits,” Newcomb said. Ecosystems all over the world are being destroyed “because of the dominating lifestyle that is predicated on greed and just wasting the resources of the planet with no regard to future generations.”