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Goodbye, Columbus

Alleged portrait of Columbus with an X-ray filter, created by author
By Jacqueline Keeler

Thanks to Columbus Day, I was forced at 5 years old to grapple with my dual identityboth as an American and a descendant of a people brutalized to create America

The first time, I sent my son to school on what would have been a holiday called Columbus Day when I was his age, I checked the school district website several times to be sure it was not a holiday. But yes, it was just another normal school day. Despite being an "Indian,” as Columbus called us, the sudden disappearance of a holiday dedicated to him left me feeling conflicted. As a child, when I first heard the rhyme, “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue” in kindergarten I had been deeply moved by the image of him braving the unknown in his small, wooden boat wearing a skirt and tights with high heels, daring to sail off the edge of the known world assisted by a crew of mutinous sailors who losing faith in him and attempted at one point to throw him overboard.

It was my mother, a woman of the Diné (Navajo) nation, who helped me comprehend what Christopher Columbus really meant to us as Indigenous people. At home washing dishes, she explained how his arrival began the invasion of our lands and she told me about Hweeldi, the Long Walk, when the U.S. force marched Navajo people to a concentration camp and half our people died en route, some bayoneted by US soldiers for not keeping up. Mostly elders and pregnant women. The rhythm of her crisp and measured Navajo-accented voice could not mask her distress as she wiped the dishes with greater ferocity and bubbles flew through the air, some landing on me and so anointing me with hard-won knowledge my family had learned, well, the hard way. I came to understand that this country for which I placed my tiny hand over my heart each day and swore, “with liberty and justice for all” was built upon the theft of my ancestors' lands and freedom. 

She did not at that time, of course, go into Columbus’ more horrific acts which he chillingly documented in his journal. On October 14, 1492, just three days after being greeted with kindness by the Lucayan people Columbus wrote, “I could conquer the whole of them with fifty men and govern them as I pleased.” But how do you tell young children the truth about the exploits of this man?  Is there a polite way of explaining that in his grasping quest for gold he ordered the cutting off the hands of Indians in Cicao who did not bring him enough tribute of gold every three months? That he had them wear their hands around their necks and 10,000 died handless? How 40,000 were shipped to Spain to be sold in the slave markets of Seville? Or how those that remained were worked to death?  
How do you tell children what Columbus wrote just eight years after he arrived, “A hundred castellanoes are as easily obtained for a woman as for a farm, and it is very general and there are plenty of dealers who go about looking for girls; those from 9 to 10 are now in demand.” 
How do you tell American students that Indians, both babies and adults, were used as dog food, and sometimes fed alive to the Spaniards’ dogs? Within two years 250,000 people in Haiti were dead, some due to suicide. Mothers were reported taking their children’s lives before taking their own. How do you teach this? The answer is obvious, you don’t. My elementary school teachers end the lesson on an upbeat note with the map of the world being completed and everyone acknowledging Columbus' great wisdom in knowing the Earth was round not flat. Luckily, I would not read about these terrible truths in his diary, but one wonders why we had to learn about the man in such heroic terms if there was so much about him that had to be hidden.

So, thanks to Columbus Day, I began at five years of age to begin to grapple with true nature of my dual identity, as both an American and a descendant of a people brutalized by America to create America. This what, by and large, Columbus Day teaches young Native people. This is how the arrival of those ships, the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria is felt by our people—who he is credited with misnaming “Indians.” Even those Native people who have no memory of ever seeing the Caribbean, like my mother's people the Navajo or my father's people the Dakota.   

History of Columbus Day

Columbus Day was first officially celebrated in the United States in Colorado in 1907 where it was a state holiday. This is, coincidentally, the very state where I attended kindergarten and my mother and I had our little and impactful conversation about Columbus. It was proposed by a local Denver Italian-American newspaper publisher when Italian-Americans faced prejudice both as Catholics and as southern Europeans. At that time, the country viewed itself as white, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant (often shortened to WASP). It was often repeated that it was the Anglo-Saxon and Protestant work ethic that made the country great and these swarthy, non-English speaking immigrants whose primary allegiance was to the Pope in Rome, not to democratic principles, could not be assimilated into American and would drag it down. And anti-immigrant sentiment grew more and more violent against Italians as their numbers grew and culminated with the 1891 lynching in New Orleans of 11 Italian immigrants. It is in this scary atmosphere that Italian Americans embraced Columbus as a historical hero who could not only place them in the story of America but provide them with a modicum of protection from the sometimes deadly violence of WASP America on their communities.  

Those days are long gone, of course. Today, Italian Americans are not generally seen as an immigrant community facing violence and hatred. Particularly when compared to immigrants from Latin America who are targeted not only for their language (but not so much for the Catholicism) and for their brown skin, a marker of their Indigenous and non-European ancestry. It is the brown skin that marks them as foreign and "from somewhere else" in a country where whiteness is still seen as the norm. 

Still, a surprising number of Italian Americans continue to regard an attack on Columbus Day as an attack on their community—but some are ready for a change. In an interview with journalist Amy Goodman in 2006, Glenn Spagnuolo, member of Transform Columbus Day Alliance and director of PITCH–Progressive Italians Transforming the Columbus Day Holiday, claimed Columbus is not admired in Italy or even in his hometown of Genoa.  ”In Genoa, at the quincentennial, they actually tried to shut down the city, so a celebration wouldn’t occur there for tourists,” he said, “in Italy, he’s viewed as the scoundrel that he is.”  

I have no problem with appreciating Italian Americans, but let’s face it, there are better Italians out there than Columbus. We need to honor people who represent the best of us and the sort of cultural heroes we can talk to our children about honestly without whitewashing their sins.  

The Path of Moral Equivalency

Some Columbus Day defenders have asked where does it all end? What would happen if we start down the road of holding all our heroes up to today's standards? What about Founding Fathers who were slaveholders? How would we judge them? But even in that barbaric past, there were individuals who stood up to this immorality.  Individuals like Bartolomé de las Casas, the first Bishop of Chiapas, who launched a 50-year human rights crusade to protect the “discovered” peoples in this hemisphere. He was, himself, originally a slave trader but after witnessing the atrocities of Columbus and his men first hand, he had a change of heart. 
“Such inhumanities and barbarisms were committed in my sight as no age can parallel,” de las Casas wrote, “my eyes have seen these acts so foreign to human nature that now I tremble as I write.”   
I can also cite many examples of criticism leveled at our own slave-owning Founding Fathers from their own time period. For example, contrast Thomas Jefferson to fellow Founding Father Gouverneur Morris who expressed repulsion at the idea of calculating slaves as 3/5ths of a person in the Constitution: 

“The admission of slaves into the representation when fairly explained comes to this: that the inhabitant of Georgia and South Carolina who goes to the coast of Africa and, in defiance of the most sacred laws of humanity, tears away his fellow creatures from their dearest connections and damns them to the most cruel bondages, shall have more votes in a government instituted for the protection of the rights of mankind than the citizen of Pennsylvania or New Jersey who views with laudable horror so nefarious a practice.” [Italics mine]

So assumptions regarding historical moral norms coupled with an uncritical assessment of Columbus (and in this example, Jefferson) puts us on the wrong side of history. It leaves us standing with slavers (which both men were) whose primary motivation was greed. Even if meant the suffering of others, even children. Indeed, while going through his bookkeeping, Jefferson discovered he was gaining a 4% profit every year through the birth of enslaved children he grew silent on the issue of emancipation. And not only that he even encouraged a friend to invest: 
“every farthing …  in land and negroes, which besides a present support bring a silent profit of from 5. to 10. percent in this country by the increase in their value.”  
This “silent profit” and “increase in their value” came from the sale of children born to enslaved women.  Once again, I ask if people at the time argued against such immorality why should Americans today support them?  It makes no sense.  

And then there is Columbus who wrote, 
“Gold is the most precious of all commodities; gold constitutes treasure and he who possesses it has all he needs in the world, as also the means of rescuing souls from purgatory and restoring them to the enjoyment of paradise.” 
So, what are we really saying when we hold such people up for honor?  And what are we teaching our children?  

And this argument of moral equivalency used in defense of Columbus Day takes on darker implications when we consider what happened in Abu Ghraib in 2006. The shocking images of grinning thumbs-up American soldiers (male and female) stacking naked bodies of hooded Iraqis and photographing these despicable acts are a reminder that when one group has absolute power over another an amoral triumphalism can appear. Even in the 21st century, ordinary Americans will do things reminiscent of the Nazi treatment of Jewish Holocaust victims during World War II. And, when no one is looking, the brutality of Columbus and his men can reappear today, and be perpetuated by modern-day Americans taught to venerate his memory.  

And of course, there are those that argue that since some in this hemisphere practiced human sacrifice everyone in the New World deserved what happened to them. 

In response to the YouTube video “Reconsider Columbus Day,” one commentator wrote, “Genocide? What genocide? Please show me any plans or malicious actions by Columbus. And, yes, you are honoring terrorist if you support those pagan religions that murdered women and children. Indians wiped out entire tribes of other Indians. Thank God Columbus saved them from that life.”  

Looking beyond the complete lack morality this trollish comment, why are “Indians” not granted the same suspension of value judgments Columbus enjoys from these same apologists? Why are all Native people, even infants, deprived of the basic human right of not being murdered?  Never mind that we have no way of verifying Columbus’ accusations of cannibalism in the Caribbean (Carib is derived from cannibal) as they were exterminated within a few decades and all knowledge we have of them comes from, you guessed it, Columbus and his merry men.  

Don’t the Lucayan people deserve to be accorded the same human rights every person in the world deserves by virtue of simply being human? And if Columbus lacked the character to do so, why shouldn’t we possess the character to do so today? Why is it so hard for Americans to reckon with their humanity and suffering and NOT honor the architect of their holocaust?  

And if Americans are incapable of mustering the moral courage in the 21st century to do this, more than 520 years after the atrocities Columbus and his men committed upon arriving in our hemisphere, what credibility does U.S. moral authority possess on the international stage? How can we judge Assad or Kim Jong-un if we raise up Columbus? If Columbus was alive today we would probably be threatening him with drone strikes, right?  Yet, instead, we give him a federal holiday.

As a Navajo and Dakota woman, I can value the words Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence, “All men are created equal” and see how these words marked a turning away from the old Aristotelian worldview: 
“From the hour of their birth, some men are marked out for subjection, others for rule.” 
But I can also learn from the failings of Jefferson, the man, who never freed the human beings he kept in bondage his entire life. A man who had children whipped to produce nails which he sold to pay for food he served at his own table cooked by enslaved chefs. A man who when he died in debt, his slaves (some his own relatives) were put up for auction, families split up, and sold to different owners. This skill of disentangling truth from history is the greatest thing we can teach our children. They need this skill in order to build a better future for all of us. This, not prosaic rhymes, is the greatest lesson that Columbus’ arrival in the Bahamas in 1492 can teach us.

America: Post Columbia

Today only 22 states and Washington, DC pay their workers and give them the day off on Columbus Day, although it remains a federal holiday.  Other states like South Dakota have changed the name to Native American Day and in Hawaii, they celebrate Discoverers’ Day to honor the Polynesian navigators who discovered the islands. These are hopeful signs. 

So where do we go as Columbus Day continues to disappear? Perhaps we can learn from Truth and Reconciliation Commissions like the one that dealt with the painful legacy of racism in Greensboro, North Carolina. In 1979, Klu Klux Klan and Nazi party members attacked and killed five anti-racism protestors in Greensboro in front of four television news crews that videotaped the murders.  All of the murders were acquitted.  How do we begin the process of breaking down entrenched power structures which use acts of domestic terrorism to keep certain members of society “in their place?”  In 1985, the families of the victims did win a landmark $350,000 civil judgment against the city. 20 years later, the community sought to heal and began a Truth and Reconciliation Commission modeled on the ones in South Africa and brought racists and their victims to the table to talk and find common ground. As one shooting victim said:
 “Truth is not always beautiful.”
As Rev. Nelson Johnson of the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission said, “I believe that the hope of our city is not to run from its yesterdays but to face its yesterdays so that its yesterdays will not be its tomorrows.”  

What we need is not only a name change of the federal holiday from Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day but an honest exploration of our painful history. We need to show our children we can look at “heroes” with clear eyes and use that clarity to build a society which we can truly be proud of and pass on to future generations. When my son stays home to celebrate Indigenous People’s survival, I’d like him to attend one of these Truth and Reconciliation Commission meetings to learn what it means to face the past without fear and not to see the world in black and white terms.  

Perhaps then, my children can explain to their children what happened after Columbus reached our shores to their children not simply as a painful truth as my mother did, but as a lesson our society has learned. 

Also, unlike my Diné and Dakota ancestors, I have visited the Caribbean. The entire time I was there I thought about Columbus and his ships and his men and his horror—even as I was surrounded by all that beauty. When I swam in the Caribbean it was like no other water I'd ever been in. Warm, almost body temperature. As I floated in and dived into the waves I thought about how it was a sea embraced by both continents, north and south, and seemed to me, the womb of this hemisphere, of my people. And in that beautiful place, I felt sure healing could come from this place even as pain once radiated out of it and the hell Columbus once made it.

Jacqueline Keeler
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Eunus Noe said...

Dear Jacqueline,

It's been a while since I encountered your writing, but I'm happy to have found your blog today. (I'm thinking about Thanksgiving today, and so it's appropriate that I find your piece on Columbus.)


My name is Douglas Bolles and I cohost an online "radio" show called 42 Minutes in which we naturally discuss "The Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything". The show is recorded live on Tuesday mornings at 11:11 am Eastern, and has its genesis in a book that came out September, 2011 (The Sync Book), of which both my cohost and I are authors. I live in Boise, and my cohost is in Denver. We use synchronicity as lens to discuss art and the artistic process as well as a playful way of interacting with reality.

The reason I "found" you again, is because I'm looking ahead to find a meaningful guest for our Thanksgiving week episode (11/26). I think you'd be perfect. Your essay that I originally read in Parabola Magazine has stuck with me all these years. I'd love to have this discussion and "meet" you formally and introduce our listeners to your work!

If you have any interest in participating in a short interview (only 42 minutes) with individuals keenly interested in meaning, existence, myth, and art––please get in touch with me and we'll get you on the schedule.

Thank you for your time, and thank you for your consideration.
your work is great.

Douglas Bolles

Jacqueline Keeler said...

Thanks! Love to talk!

mylandrestorationproject said...

Beautifully said.