Indigenous People’s Day, aka Columbus Day, is coming up on Oct. 11, so let’s take a peek into history. Born in Italy in 1451, Christofo Columbo began his career in 1477 as a merchant …
Indigenous People’s Day, aka Columbus Day, is coming up on Oct. 11, so let’s take a peek into history. Born in Italy in 1451, Christofo Columbo began his career in 1477 as a merchant mariner for King John the 2nd of Portugal. Spain was gaining power on the seas, colonizing Atlantic islands, and establishing trade with African nations. In the 1480s, it was discovered that the Indian Ocean provided a water route to Asia, accelerating trade.
Mistaken European scholars thought the world was 20-percent smaller than previously believed, so they thought a shorter route to Asia existed by sailing west. Because of the newly invented printing press, Columbus read about it and was determined to find this more direct route which would lead to undiscovered lands and riches.
After many failed appeals for funding from Portugal, France, England, and Spain, in 1492 Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain agreed, seeing his venture as an opportunity to compete with Portugal, gaining wealth and power at a relatively small cost.
It was an era of ethnic cleansing. The Inquisition, a powerful office of the Catholic Church, had been set up in the 12th century to cleanse Europe and the Americas of heretics: initially Jews and Muslims and later Protestants. Jews were forced to leave or convert, but often burned at the stake anyway. In 200 years, 32,000 people were executed in Spain alone. Famously, Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in 1431 in France. It was not a gentle time, and it was the environment Columbus lived in. In 1493, the Doctrine of Discovery clenched the deal for Christian conquest, sealing the fates of millions of indigenous people. More about that later.
It is rather mindboggling to consider the inaccurate, sanitized mythology about Columbus that has been taught as history in our schools and embedded in our culture’s psyche, even when Facebook, Twitter, cable channels, and internet blogs didn’t exist to spread the lies. What makes it more remarkable is that all of Columbus’s original journals, notes, and letters are still accessible in archives, in which he advocated enslaving the natives they met.
So many lies. Columbus was given credit for figuring out that the world was round, when in fact that was common knowledge for educated Europeans at that time. Eratosthenes not only developed an understanding of latitude in 300 B.C., he also made the first estimate of the circumference of the globe and was accurate to within two percent.
Nor did Columbus “discover” anything. As most of us are aware, Columbus did bang into land in the Bahamas, possibly San Salvador, but was basically lost, thinking he was in Asia. Nor was he the first. Leif Erickson and possibly others from China and Africa had visited the Americas in earlier centuries. Columbus traveled around the Caribbean, where he found about two million Taino, indigenous people who were friendly and welcoming, but not the riches he craved. He spent most of the time in Hispaniola, now called Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
Over a few years and three voyages, he searched for treasures in vain, and as Governor, forced the locals to work on plantations and make quarterly payments in gold dust, which was impossible because there wasn’t much gold on the islands. Those who failed to bring the required amount quarterly had their hands chopped off, a death sentence. It is estimated that within 60 years after Columbus landed, only a few hundred of 250,000 Taino were left on that island.
Queen Isabella refused a gift from him of 500 slaves as she felt they were now Spanish citizens and should not be enslaved; she returned the “gift.” A Jesuit priest, Bartolome´ de las Casas, (later a bishop,) wrote that “The Spaniards are treating the Indians like excrement in a public square, and Columbus was at the beginning of the ill-usage inflicted upon them.” He wrote about horrifying murders of adults and children, that the Spaniards treated as sport, and weirdly, “They hanged Indians by thirteens, in honor and reverence for our Redeemer and the twelve apostles.” It’s hard for me to conceive of the twisted thinking that morphs murder into honoring God.
In 1493, Pope Alexander VI, a major political force, wanted Christians to quit killing each other and join together in the Crusades against Muslims. He declared through papal bulls (edicts) known collectively as the Doctrine of Discovery that all people had to serve the Christian kings, and that any Christian kingdom could claim ownership of all “discovered’ lands that were controlled by non-Christians, that the lands would be declared “empty” and that non-Christian natives had no authority to rule themselves.
This isn’t ancient history. The Doctrine of Discovery is considered internatonal public law and has been cited in many laws and Supreme Court decisions in modern times, justifying oppressive treatment of indigenous people. The Pope has yet to renounce it, although many non-Catholic denominations have. The Doctrine changed the language of hierarchy and colonization from “the divine right of kings” to “the divine right of Christian kings.” The intent also shifted from just stealing resources to stealing peoples’ religion and culture, forcing assimilation.
Columbus was eventually arrested and returned to Spain in chains. He was stripped of his noble titles, but was released and his money returned. He did finagle one more trip across the Atlantic in 1502. He made it to Panama, just miles from the Pacific Ocean, but lost two of his four ships, damaged by storms and hostile natives, returning home empty-handed; he died four years later.
He did open up permanent contact and communication between the Americas and the rest of the world. The aim of Spain and other European countries at the time was to discover, possess, and colonize other lands and people, and extreme cruelty was par for the course during the Inquisition. Columbus was part of that era, but that is not reason to ignore the devastation that he left behind. We should ask ourselves, how was it so easy to whitewash (literally) the true history and disseminate misinformation in our public schools?
And yet we see today the clashes that are happening around the country and in our small town here with some people objecting vociferously to teachers presenting materials and instruction that provide multiple perspectives beyond the historical “party line” created to make those in power look good.
Indigenous Peoples’ Day is not national yet. Many cities and towns celebrate it, including Minneapolis, and some states have officially adopted it to replace Columbus Day. Governors Dayton and Walz have proclaimed the day, and Walz has said he will sign it into law if it comes to his desk, according to Lieutenant Governor Peggy Flanagan, who is a member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe.
We can honor the day in many ways: Learn the history of our town and home- who was there first? Read indigenous literature. I recommend “Everything You Wanted to Know about Indians but Were Afraid to Ask” by Anton Treuer, which provided some of the information here. Join a celebration online or in person. Encourage the teaching of civics and history in your schools. Learn more yourself! Advocate for Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Best of all, diversify the people you know in your own life, and enjoy the richness of people from different cultures.
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