200 Years of Johnson v. M’Intosh: Law, Religion, and Native American Lands

deadline for submissions: 
January 15, 2023
full name / name of organization: 
Indigenous Values Initiative


Submit by 1/15/2023

The Center for the Study of Law and Religion (CSLR) at Emory University, in partnership with the Indigenous Values Initiative (IVI), Syracuse University, and Canopy Forum, seeks short articles and multimedia submissions marking the 200th Anniversary of Johnson v. M’Intosh, 21 U.S. 543 (1823).

In its landmark Johnson v. M’Intosh decision, the U.S. Supreme Court reiterated a principle that was previously established in the Non-Intercourse Act of 1790, namely, that private citizens could not purchase lands from Native American Nations. As Chief Justice John Marshall’s opinion explained: “discovery gave title to government…[and] the sole right of acquiring the soil from the natives.”

Marshall’s allusion to the “Doctrine of Discovery” invoked a medieval theology of conquest, and a legacy of global exploitation, genocide, slavery, and despoliation. Originally formulated by the Papal curia, the doctrine espoused the inequality of Christians and non-Christians, and provided a basis for Euro-American hegemony and the domination of Indigenous Peoples and the land.

The Johnson v. M’Intosh holding adapted this doctrine into American legal practice, namely as a device by which the United States’ government could claim superior title to the land of North America, and reduce Indigenous ownership—with its legal, religious, cultural, and economic dimensions—to a mutable and dissolvable “aboriginal” or “Indian” title. The Doctrine as articulated by Marshall would become a foundational principle not only of U.S. property law and Federal Indian Law – cited favorably by the US Supreme Court as recently as the 2005 case of City of Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation – but also of Manifest Destiny and colonial expansion to the Pacific Ocean.

The year 2023 marks the 200th anniversary of Johnson v. M’Intosh. With the approach of this significant date, Canopy Forum invites short articles and multimedia presentations analyzing the impacts of the Doctrine of Discovery and/or Johnson v. M’intosh in U.S. law and international contexts. We further invite informed reflections on alternative ecologies, spiritualities, legal principles, and socio-economic systems articulated in light of the Doctrine’s history and legacy. Submissions may address questions such as:

  • What is the legacy of Johnson v. M’Intosh in U.S. property law, Federal Indian law, and/or other areas of law?
  • What is the broader history of the “Doctrine of Discovery” in religious or political thought and practice?
  • To what extent is Johnson v. M’Intosh still “good law” in the Supreme Court’s recent jurisprudence?
  • How did/does the decision influence or reverberate in international, environmental, and/or property law?
  • How did Johnson v. M’Intosh influence the legal discourse of coloniality adopted by other jurisdictions in the Anglosphere?
  • To what extent, if any, does the Doctrine remain part of contemporary politics and popular culture?
  • What influence, if any, has the Doctrine had on American foreign policy over the last 200 years?
  • Submissions on other topics/questions are also welcome.

Submissions that are received before January 15, 2023 are strongly preferred. Instructions and guidelines for written and multimedia submissions can be found here.

A methodological note from the Indigenous Values Initiative

The Gä•sweñta’ (Two Row Wampum belt) is the earliest treaty between the Haudenosaunee Confederacy and the settler-colonists of Europe. The wampum belt is comprised of two purple rows of wampum beads running parallel with each other. The Haudenosaunee in their canoe and the Dutch in their boat would each travel down the river of life side by side with one another without interfering with one another. Sadly, the settler-colonial governments never understood that what links us all together is that our diversity of identities stems from being in proper relationship with the land. Therefore, a destructive wedge has undermined upholding this first treaty. We use the principles of the Two Row Wampum as a central organizing principle for this call for papers. We invite Indigenous and non-indigenous submissions.

The Indigenous Values Initiative’s “200 Years of Johnson v. McIntosh” project is supported by the Henry Luce Foundation and Syracuse University. Learn more at https://indigenousvalues.org/.