|Drums of October
And Transforming Columbus Day
A Study Guide for Faith Communities
Put together by the Red Earth Women’s Alliance (REWA)
Drums of October – 20 minute video
Drums of October – Study guide
Soul Wound – Article from Amnesty International
Soul Wound – Study Guide
Hidden History: Columbus and the Colonial Legacy – Article from New Internationalist
Hidden History – Study Guide
Suggestions for use:
For a one-time adult-education session of 1 hour or 90 minutes, use the Drums of October video and its study guide. Make the other articles and study guides available for participants who want to do additional research. Many more articles are available through www.transformcolumbusday.org
If more than one session can be planned, several different sessions could be spent watching the video and discussing it and reading the articles and discussing them. Your own regional or national faith group may have other resources to create further sessions or discussion.
Speakers are available to resource your faith community. Please call Thea at 720-771-0065 for a speaker or call the TCD hotline at 303-312-1TCD.
The Drums of October
A Study Guide for Faith Communities
Pre-Viewing Discussion (5 minutes):
Before looking at the short film, discuss the following questions as a whole group:
How did your understanding of the beginnings of the United States of America begin to take shape, at home, at school?
What was your impression of Christopher Columbus when you were a child?
What was your impression of Indians when you were a child? How was this impression formed?
Watch the film (20 minutes)
Lori Windle. The Drums of October: Legacy of a Pernicious Hero. 2001.
Post-Viewing Discussion (25 minutes):
After looking at the short film, discuss the following questions in small group. You may need to divide up the questions so that not all groups are discussing all questions:
What is your gut reaction to the film?
This film clearly links Columbus to genocide and the beginning of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. What is your reaction to the reality that a “hero” of your childhood was, in truth, a brutal, racist man?
This film suggests that America was founded on myths: The myth of discovery. The myth of exploration. The myth that Indians didn’t love their children. The myth that Native Peoples are savages and less than the rest of the people coming to America. The myth that Indian people were in the way of civilized “progress.” How have these myths shaped our national identity as Americans?
As members of faith communities, how does it make you feel to hear that some people believe “Christopher Columbus came in the name of Christ” and to see this on a Columbus Day Parade banner?
In the same light, what about the many faith-based schools for Native American children where they were stripped of their identity in order to be “civilized?” What is our responsibility for this legacy? Do the words “progress,” “settler,” “savage,” “civilized,” “explorer,” and “discoverer,” take on different meanings for you now?
What is the connection between colonialism and Columbus?
The film urges us to make sure our children are getting an education about the truth. What can be done to assure that our children and our grandchildren don’t grow up with these same myths?
This film suggests that history could have taken an entirely different course. Can you even imagine what that would have been? How could the Indigenous concepts of “sacred earth,” generosity,” “hospitality,” “respect” have been used to shape an entirely new society/country/culture? Is it too late for us now?
Nita Gonzalez, one of the speakers in the film says of Chicanos: “We are familia” [with Native Peoples.] Do you feel as if you are familia? Why or why not? Do you want to be familia? What would be required of us if we were “familia” with Native Peoples?
What can you do now, as a community and as an individual?
Feedback to the whole group:
If time, report back key points to the whole group, from the small groups, especially regarding questions 7, 8, and 9.
The Legacy of Native American Schools
Amnesty Now, Amnesty International USA, no date.
U.S. and Canadian authorities took Native children from their homes and tried to school, and sometimes beat, the Indian out them. Now Native Americans are fighting the theft of language, of culture, and of childhood itself.
BY ANDREA SMITH
Andrea Smith (Cherokee) is interim coordinator for the Boarding School Healing Project and a Bunche Fellow coordinating AIUSA’s research project on Sexual Violence and American Indian women.
A little while ago, I was supposed to attend a Halloween party. I decided to dress as a nun because nuns were the scariest things I ever saw,” says Willetta Dolphus, 54, a Cheyenne River Lakota. The source of her fear, still vivid decades later, was her childhood experience at American Indian boarding schools in South Dakota.
Dolphus is one of more than 100,000 Native Americans forced by the U.S. government to attend Christian schools. The system, which began with President Ulysses Grant’s 1869 “Peace Policy,” continued well into the 20th century. Church officials, missionaries, and local authorities took children as young as five from their parents and shipped them off to Christian boarding schools; they forced others to enroll in Christian day schools on reservations. Those sent to boarding school were separated from their families for most of the year, sometimes without a single family visit. Parents caught trying to hide their children lost food rations.
Virtually imprisoned in the schools, children experienced a devastating litany of abuses, from forced assimilation and grueling labor to widespread sexual and physical abuse. Scholars and activists have only begun to analyze what Joseph Gone (Gros Ventre), a psychology professor at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, calls “the cumulative effects of these historical experiences across gender and generation upon tribal communities today.”
“Native America knows all too well the reality of the boarding schools,” writes Native American Bar Association President Richard Monette, who attended a North Dakota boarding school, “where recent generations learned the fine art of standing in line single-file for hours without moving a hair, as a lesson in discipline; where our best and brightest earned graduation certificates for homemaking and masonry; where the sharp rules of immaculate living were instilled through blistered hands and knees on the floor with scouring toothbrushes; where mouths were scrubbed with lye and chlorine solutions for uttering Native words.”
Sammy Toineeta (Lakota) helped found the national Boarding School Healing Project to document such abuses. “Human rights activists must talk about the issue of boarding schools,” says Toineeta. “It is one of the grossest human rights violations because it targeted children and was the tool for perpetrating cultural genocide. To ignore this issue would be to ignore the human rights of indigenous peoples, not only in the U.S., but around the world.”
The schools were part of Euro-America’s drive to solve the “Indian problem” and end Native control of their lands. While some colonizers advocated outright physical extermination, Captain Richard H. Pratt thought it wiser to “Kill the Indian and save the man.” In 1879 Pratt, an army veteran of the Indian wars, opened the first federally sanctioned boarding school: the Carlisle Industrial Training School, in Carlisle, Penn.
“Transfer the savage-born infant to the surroundings of civilization, and he will grow to possess a civilized language and habit,” said Pratt. He modeled Carlisle on a prison school he had developed for a group of 72 Indian prisoners of war at Florida’s Fort Marion prison. His philosophy was to “elevate” American Indians to white standards through a process of forced acculturation that stripped them of their language, culture, and customs.
Government officials found the Carlisle model an appealing alternative to the costly military campaigns against Indians in the West. Within three decades of Carlisle’s opening, nearly 500 schools extended all the way to California. The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) controlled 25 off-reservation boarding schools while churches ran 460 boarding and day schools on reservations with government funds.
Both BIA and church schools ran on bare-bones budgets, and large numbers of students died from starvation and disease because of inadequate food and medical care. School officials routinely forced children to do arduous work to raise money for staff salaries and “leased out” students during the summers to farm or work as domestics for white families. In addition to bringing in income, the hard labor prepared children to take their place in white society—the only one open to them—on the bottom rung of the socioeconomic ladder.
Physical hardship, however, was merely the backdrop to a systematic assault on Native culture. School staff sheared children’s hair, banned traditional clothing and customs, and forced children to worship as Christians. Eliminating Native languages—considered an obstacle to the “acculturation” process—was a top priority, and teachers devised an extensive repertoire of punishments for uncooperative children. “I was forced to eat an entire bar of soap for speaking my language,” says AIUSA activist Byron Wesley (Navajo).
The loss of language cut deep into the heart of the Native community. Recent efforts to restore Native languages hint at what was lost. Mona Recountre, of the South Dakota Crow Creek reservation, says that when her reservation began a Native language immersion program at its elementary school, social relationships within the school changed radically and teachers saw a decline in disciplinary problems. Recountre’s explanation is that the Dakota language creates community and respect by emphasizing kinship and relationships. The children now call their teachers “uncle” or “auntie” and “don’t think of them as authority figures,” says Recountre. “It’s a form of respect, and it’s a form of acknowledgment.”
Native scholars describe the destruction of their culture as a “soul wound,” from which Native Americans have not healed. Embedded deep within that wound is a pattern of sexual and physical abuse that began in the early years of the boarding school system. Joseph Gone describes a history of “unmonitored and unchecked physical and sexual aggression perpetrated by school officials against a vulnerable and institutionalized population.” Gone is one of many scholars contributing research to the Boarding School Healing Project.
Rampant sexual abuse at reservation schools continued until the end of the 1980s, in part because of pre-1990 loopholes in state and federal law mandating the reporting of allegations of child sexual abuse. In 1987 the FBI found evidence that John Boone, a teacher at the BIA-run Hopi day school in Arizona, had sexually abused as many as 142 boys from 1979 until his arrest in 1987. The principal failed to investigate a single abuse allegation. Boone, one of several BIA schoolteachers caught molesting children on reservations in the late 1980s, was convicted of child abuse, and he received a life sentence. Acting BIA chief William Ragsdale admitted that the agency had not been sufficiently responsive to allegations of sexual abuse, and he apologized to the Hopi tribe and others whose children BIA employees had abused.
The effects of the widespread sexual abuse in the schools continue to ricochet through Native communities today. “We know that experiences of such violence are clearly correlated with posttraumatic reactions including social and psychological disruptions and breakdowns,” says Gone.
Dolphus, now director of the South Dakota Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence, sees boarding school policies as the central route through which sexual abuse became entrenched in Native communities, as many victims became molesters themselves. Hopi tribe members testified at a 1989 Senate hearing that some of Boone’s victims had become sex abusers; others had become suicidal or alcoholic.
The abuse has dealt repeated blows to the traditional social structure of Indian communities. Before colonization, Native women generally enjoyed high status, according to scholars, and violence against women, children, and elders was virtually non-existent. Today, sexual abuse and violence have reached epidemic proportions in Native communities, along with alcoholism and suicide. By the end of the 1990s, the sexual assault rate among Native Americans was three-and-a-half times higher than for any other ethnic group in the U.S., according to the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics. Alcoholism in Native communities is currently six times higher than the national average. Researchers are just beginning to establish quantitative links between these epidemic rates and the legacy of boarding schools.
A more complete history of the abuses endured by Native American children exists in the accounts of survivors of Canadian “residential schools.” Canada imported the U.S. boarding school model in the 1880s and maintained it well into the 1970s—four decades after the United States ended its stated policy of forced enrollment. Abuses in Canadian schools are much better documented because survivors of Canadian schools are more numerous, younger, and generally more willing to talk about their experiences.
A 2001 report by the Truth Commission into Genocide in Canada documents the responsibility of the Roman Catholic Church, the United Church of Canada, the Anglican Church of Canada, and the federal government in the deaths of more than 50,000 Native children in the Canadian residential school system.
The report says church officials killed children by beating, poisoning, electric shock, starvation, prolonged exposure to sub-zero cold while naked, and medical experimentation, including the removal of organs and radiation exposure. In 1928 Alberta passed legislation allowing school officials to forcibly sterilize Native girls; British Columbia followed suit in 1933. There is no accurate toll of forced sterilizations because hospital staff destroyed records in 1995 after police launched an investigation. But according to the testimony of a nurse in Alberta, doctors sterilized entire groups of Native children when they reached puberty. The report also says that Canadian clergy, police, and business and government officials “rented out” children from residential schools to pedophile rings.
The consequences of sexual abuse can be devastating. “Of the first 29 men who publicly disclosed sexual abuse in Canadian residential schools, 22 committed suicide,” says Gerry Oleman, a counselor to residential school survivors in British Columbia.
Randy Fred (Tsehaht First Nation), a 47-year-old survivor, told the British Columbia Aboriginal Network on Disability Society, “We were kids when we were raped and victimized. All the plaintiffs I’ve talked with have attempted suicide. I attempted suicide twice, when I was 19 and again when I was 20. We all suffered from alcohol abuse, drug abuse. Looking at the lists of students [abused in the school], at least half the guys are dead.”
The Truth Commission report says that the grounds of several schools contain unmarked graveyards of murdered school children, including babies born to Native girls raped by priests and other church officials in the school. Thousands of survivors and relatives have filed lawsuits against Canadian churches and governments since the 1990s, with the costs of settlements estimated at more than $1 billion. Many cases are still working their way through the court system.
While some Canadian churches have launched reconciliation programs, U.S. churches have been largely silent. Natives of this country have also been less aggressive in pursuing lawsuits. Attorney Tonya Gonnella-Frichner (Onondaga) says that the combination of statutes of limitations, lack of documentation, and the conservative makeup of the current U.S. Supreme Court make lawsuits a difficult and risky strategy.
Nonetheless, six members of the Sioux Nation who say they were physically and sexually abused in government-run boarding schools filed a class-action lawsuit this April against the United States for $25 billion on behalf of hundreds of thousands of mistreated Native Americans. Sherwyn Zephier was a student at a school run from 1948 to 1975 by St. Paul’s Catholic Church in Marty, S.D.: “I was tortured in the middle of the night. They would whip us with boards and sometimes with straps,” he recalled in Los Angeles at an April press conference to launch the suit.
Adele Zephier, Sherwyn’s sister, said, “I was molested there by a priest and watched other girls” and then broke down crying. Lawyers have interviewed nearly 1,000 alleged victims in South Dakota alone.
Native activists within church denominations are also pushing for resolutions that address boarding school abuses. This July the first such resolution will go before the United Church of Christ, demanding that the church begin a process of reconciliation with Native communities. Activists also point out that while the mass abductions ended with the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act (IRA), doctors, lawyers, and social workers were still removing thousands of children from their families well into the 1970s. Even today, “Indian parents continue to consent to adoptions after being persuaded by ‘professionals’ who promise that their child will fare better in a white, middle-class family,” according to a report by Lisa Poupart for the Crime and Social Justice Associates.
Although there is disagreement in Native communities about how to approach the past, most agree that the first step is documentation. It is crucial that this history be exposed, says Dolphus. “When the elders who were abused in these schools have the chance to heal, then the younger generation will begin to heal too.”
Members of the Boarding School Healing Project say that current levels of violence and dysfunction in Native communities result from human rights abuses perpetrated by state policy. In addition to setting up hotlines and healing services for survivors, this broad coalition is using a human rights framework to demand accountability from Washington and churches.
While this project is Herculean in its scope, its success could be critical to the healing of indigenous nations from both contemporary and historical human rights abuses. Native communities, the project’s founders hope, will begin to view the abuse as the consequence of human rights violations perpetrated by church and state rather than as an issue of community dysfunction and individual failings. And for individuals, overcoming the silence and the stigma of abuse in Native communities can lead to breakthroughs: “There was an experience that caused me to be damaged,” said boarding school survivor Sammy Toineeta. “I finally realized that there wasn’t something wrong with me.”
A Study Guide for Faith Communities
Put together by the Red Earth Women’s Alliance (REWA)
Pre-Reading Activity (Electronic Version (five minutes)):
What is your general understanding of the role that mission schools played in the history of the United States?
Andrea Smith, “Soul Wound: The Legacy of Native American Schools”, Amnesty Now, Amnesty International USA, no date.
Discussion: In small groups, discuss the following questions:
What is your gut reaction to this article?
All of us would agree that what is documented in this article is horrifying. What fundamental assumptions about Indigenous Peoples and their cultures and Christianity and European culture perpetrated this history of horrible abuse? Do these attitudes continue today? Where, in your opinion? Why, in your opinion?
Recently, we have all heard of sexual abuse by Catholic priests of largely white young people? Why is this abuse of Indigenous Peoples’ children a hidden story?
As white people (or people from communities of color who were not victims of this particular abuse), how did we benefit from this history?
Can you envision a different course for history? What would have been the components of this “different way?”
What is our responsibility now? What action should we take, as communities of faith? As individuals in today’s society?
issue 226 - December 1991
Columbus & the colonial legacy
‘In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.’ Wayne Ellwood explores the myth of discovery
and looks at the famous mariner’s impact on the land and people of the Americas.
On a fine summer’s day the twin spires of the Martyr’s Shrine are clearly etched against a cobalt blue sky. The solid stone church, hewn from cold granite, has a commanding view of the rich farmland to the south and, just barely visible to the north, the shining silver lip of Georgian Bay on Lake Huron - one of the largest of North America’s Great Lakes.
Lake Huron is named after the indigenous people that used to inhabit this region of southern Ontario. Early French fur traders gave them the name Huron, though they called themselves the Wendat.
A century after Christopher Columbus sailed into the Caribbean, the Wendat were still a thriving nation of 30,000 people, largely untouched by the expanding legions of white Europeans probing the continent for wealth. They grew corn, beans and squash in the fertile alluvial soil, and lived in bark-covered longhouses in small tribal communities. Their lives were tuned to the cyclical rhythm of the seasons; as with most native people the physical and the spiritual world were one.
Today the Wendat are gone, though archaeologists continue to poke and prod the woods and fields of Huronia for remnants of their culture. Yet you can still catch a glimpse of their lives by wandering across the highway from the church to see ‘Ste Marie Among the Hurons’ - an astonishingly detailed, historical reconstruction of an early Christian mission run by French Jesuits. Fresh-faced college students in period costume re-enact life on the mission; men and women from a nearby Ojibway reserve take the part of the Huron.
The Ste Marie mission thrived for barely ten years, from 1640 to 1650, an outpost of Christianity in the middle of the Canadian wilderness, nearly 4,000 miles from Paris. At its peak 60 Europeans lived there including 23 priests - known to the Wendat as the ‘black robes’. By the time the Jesuits left, the Huron people had virtually disappeared.
What happened? Trading rivalries, stirred up by British and Dutch traders to the south, set in motion a deadly assault on Huron villages by other Indian groups, members of the Iroquois League. In March, 1649 a thousand Mohawk and Seneca warriors attacked the Huron. Two Jesuit priests were killed and eventually a shrine above the old mission of Ste Marie was built. Nearly 10,000 Huron, along with a handful of priests, took refuge on an island in Georgian Bay - known today as Christian Island. By spring, starvation, disease and cold had reduced their numbers to fewer than 300 people.1
The Huron tragedy is one small footnote in the history of the Americas that has unfolded over the last 500 years. Unfortunately, the ingredients are all too familiar: commerce, Christianity, racism, disease and death. The Jesuits at Ste Marie, like their Spanish predecessors farther south, were men of their time. Both were steeped in the twisted religiosity and arrogance of the mediaeval Church. And both believed in the ‘doctrine of discovery’ which was to undergird the centuries of imperial expansion which followed. Europeans saw themselves at the apex of civilization; whatever European nation first ‘discovered’ another land had the right to colonize it, regardless of the people who lived there.
Hungry for gold
Within months of Columbus’ first landfall in the ‘new world’ Pope Alexander VI issued a Papal edict stating: ‘The Catholic faith and Christian religion, especially in our times shall be exalted, broadened and spread in every part of the world, salvation shall be sought for all souls, barbarian nations shall be subdued and led back to the faith.’
For the gold-hungry Spaniards this divine command quickly became a rationale for centuries of barbaric treatment of native Americans. Columbus himself set the stage on the island of Hispaniola (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic), the site of his first settlement. By his second voyage, in 1495, he was desperate for gold to repay the Spanish bankers who were financing him. Columbus refused to believe there was almost no gold on the island; instead he forced the island’s Taino inhabitants to bring him a ‘hawk’s bell’ full of gold dust every three months. The natives were made to wear a copper disc around their necks to prove they’d paid their tribute. Those caught without a disc had their arms hacked off, or were murdered outright.2
The conquistadors who followed Columbus were driven by the same frenzied greed. When Hemando Cortés met the Aztec ambassadors of the great lord Moctezuma in 1519 he was dazzled by the gold jewellery that adorned their bodies. ‘Send me some of it,’ the Spaniard ordered, ‘because I and my companions suffer from a disease of the heart which can be cured only with gold.’ - an apt description of the spiritual vacuum at the centre of the European soul.3 Several months later, when the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan had been captured, nearly a quarter of a million Aztec warriors lay dead.
Thirty years later the Catholic priest, Bartolomé de Las Casas, wrote his famous Brief History of the Destruction of the Indies, in which he graphically described the depredations of the Spanish fortune seekers. The Spaniards hurled themselves on the Indians ‘like wolves after days of starvation’, he wrote. ‘For 40 years they have done nothing but torture, murder, harass, afflict torment and destroy them with extraordinary, incredible,. innovative and previously unheard of cruelty ... Some natives they hung on gibbets, and it was their reverential custom to gather at a time sufficient victims to hang 13 in a row, and thus piously to commemorate Christ and the 12 Apostles.’
Las Casas estimated that 50 million Indians perished in Latin America and the Caribbean within 50 years of Columbus’ landing. Scholars now reckon that 90 per cent of the indigenous population of the Americas was wiped out in a century and a half - the greatest demographic collapse in the history of the planet and the proportional equivalent of nearly half a billion people today.
Much of that death and destruction was caused by illness. The people of the Americas had little resistance to old-world diseases like influenza, measles and small-pox. These imported pathogens cut a swath across the land, decimating whole Indian nations, often before the Europeans reached them. The Annals of the Cakchiquels, written during the Spanish invasion by one of the largest Maya groups in Guatemala, capture the terror of the times:
‘Great was the stench of the dead After our fathers and grandfathers succumbed, half of the people fled to the fields. The dogs and the vultures devoured the bodies. The mortality was terrible. Your grandfathers died, and with them died the son of the king and his brothers and kinsmen ... oh, my sons! We were born to die!’4
Las Casas argued passionately that the Indians had souls like the Spaniards and should be treated with respect. But to no avail. The ideology of racial superiority was already firmly in place. Native people were damned outside the Christian faith, a point which was emphasized in the infamous requiriemento of the Spanish Crown. The Indians were given a choice: accept the Christian god willingly or face the consequences. The conquistador, Gonzalo de Alvarado, sent an abridged version to the Maya leader Kaibil Balam before attacking:
‘Let it be known that our coming is beneficial ... because we bring tidings of the true God and Christian Religion sent by the Pope - the Vicar of Jesus Christ, God and Man - and the Emperor King of Spain, so that you may become Christians peacefully of your own free will; but should you refuse the peace we offer, then the death and destruction that follow will be entirely of your own account.’5
Having demonized native people as a ‘dark force’ living outside the norms of civilization it was a simple step to apply the same label to black Africans. Columbus himself was a great advocate of slavery, and crammed 500 Taino people into a ship on his second voyage home. Later he proposed in a letter to the Spanish Queen Isabella: ‘The savage and cannibalistic Caribs should be exchanged as slaves against livestock to be provided by merchants in Spain.’
Slaves were soon captured from the West coast of Africa to replace the fast-dying native Americans: 4,000 were sold in Cuba and Hispaniola in 1517. The trade quickly took off as the demand for cheap agricultural labour increased in the new colonies of Brazil and Jamaica. Hundreds of boats crossed the Atlantic, disgorging their human cargoes in the ports of Kingston, Havana and later, Charleston, in North Carolina. The history of the slave trade is now well documented. And though the numbers can’t convey the cruelty and suffering, they bear repeating - just as the horror of the Nazi Holocaust should be studied anew by every generation.
Ideology of racism
The Atlantic slave trade lasted nearly 400 years during which time 15 million Africans were shipped to the Americas. Conditions during the crossing were so horrific that between a half and a third of the African captives died on route. Of the rest, most died within a decade of their arrival in the strange new land. By the time slavery was officially abolished in the late 1800s, one in four Africans was a slave.
Black Africans and indigenous Americans were yoked together as subhuman savages who could join the expanding Christian world - or be swept aside. The French priest, Father Dutertre, neatly summed up the dominant view of slavery in the 17th century: ‘Their servitude,’ he wrote, ‘is the principle of their happiness and their disgrace is the cause of their salvation.’6
Thus the ideology of racism was legitimized by the teachings of the Church. Both blacks and native people could be abused and exploited in the pursuit of wealth without moral qualm.
In their self-righteous desire to control the natives and subdue the vast wilderness, the Spanish - and later the French and English - attempted to rebuild Europe in the Americas. Aztec and Mayan temples were destroyed and their stones used to build the churches and cathedrals of the conquerors. It was inevitable that the destruction of Indian nations soon turned to the destruction of the natural environment. But what was it about this boundless, ‘new land’ and the ‘pagan practises’ of native Americans that caused Europeans to react with agitation and revulsion?
A clue lies in the ancient earth-based spirituality that native Americans practised and which Europeans looked at with both fear and longing. For Indian people the natural world was inseparable from the spiritual world. Time was circular, like the great Aztec calendar, and myth was as palpable as the rocks or the trees. All nature was a cathedral.
The American historian Frederick Turner argues convincingly that Indian spirituality was feared precisely because it was so appealing to European Christians whose own myths of meaning had been gutted by the Church:
‘In the same way that civilized men (sic) had cleared the earth, pruned back the forests, planted villages, towns and cities, so had Christianity stripped its world of magic and mystery, and of the possibility of spiritual renewal through itself. In cutting down the sacred trees in the mystic groves, in building its sanctuaries on the rubble of the chthonic shrines, and in branding all vestiges of ancient mythic practises [as] vain, impious and superstitious, the Church had effectively removed divinity from its world... its people [became] alienated sojourners in a spiritually barren world where the only outlet for the urge to life was the restless drive onward ...'3
The natural world became a satanic place of dark menace for the Europeans, an environment to be tamed and remade in the service of human progress. The natives on the other hand were lost to ‘the ooze of night and nature from which Christian history had redeemed itself.’ The only option, Turner says, was to take possession without becoming possessed: to take secure hold on the lands beyond and yet hold them at a rigidly maintained spiritual distance.’
This the colonizing Europeans did with a vengeance. From Columbus to the present day the natural wealth of the Americas has been plundered, wildlife exterminated and the land, water and air poisoned. In the United States alone more than 140 major animal and bird species have become extinct since 1492.7 And still the essential environmental message of Indian people remains to be heard:
‘Without [the land and animals] our spirits will die. Non-natives sometimes think we are being romantic when we talk about these things. This is not about romance. This is reality and survival,’ says Norma Kassi from the Gwitch’in Nation in the Canadian Yukon.8
Today the single-minded greed of the conquistadors has been replaced by the bloodless ‘bottom line’ of corporate accountants. Multinational corporations have become the modern-day pirates, working hand-in-hand with the nation states that now occupy the lands of the Kayapo and the Apaché.
Whether it is timber on the land of the Gitksan-Wetsuwetan in British Columbia, or oil on the land of the Huarani in Ecuador, the rights of native Americans are still being trampled. Today, not a single country in the Americas recognizes native people as distinct nations with the right to self-government.
Nor has the other main legacy of the Columbus venture been dismantled. The ideology of racism continues to scar social relations and harmony in the Americas, from Chile to Canada. Afro-Americans and other people of colour are amongst the very poorest, with sky-high unemployment, decrepit housing, inadequate health care and crippling rates of alcoholism and disease. In the US, home of the ‘New World Order’, 43 per cent of all black children are born into poverty and the only stable jobs for young black men are in the army. Yet across the Americas these same people are being called upon to celebrate the anniversary of Columbus.
* * *
October 12, 1992 marks the 500th anniversary of what author Kirkpatrick Sale calls the beginning of ‘the European conquest of the world’. By the time next year has passed most of us will know more than we cared, or wanted to know, about Christopher Columbus, the middle-aged Italian sailor whose haphazard voyage across the Atlantic set in motion the colonial era.
But there are other lessons about which we will have a great deal to learn. The legacy of Christopher Columbus is still with us - the process of colonization and dispossession is still underway. But the hidden history of two continents is only slowly emerging. And the real ‘discovery’ of the Americas has yet to take place.
1 ‘The Jesuits and the Fur Trade’ by Bruce Trigger, from Sweet Promises ed. JR Miller (University of Toronto Press, 1991).
2 Columbus: His Enterprise, Exploding the Myth, Hans Koning (Monthly Review Press/LAB, 1991).
3 Beyond Geography: The Western Spirit Against the Wilderness, Frederick Turner (Rutgers University Press, 1983).
4 Central America: A Nation Divided, RL Woodward (Oxford University Press, 1985).
5 George W Lovell, cited in Time Among the Maya, Ronald Wright (Penguin Books, 1990).
6 ‘The Voice of the Victims’, by Laennec Hurbon, Concilium, 1492-1992.
7 The conquest of Paradise, Kirkpatrick Sale (Knopf, 1990).
8 ‘On the Land Forever’, speech to the First Interamerican Congress of Indigenous Peoples on Management and Conservation of Natural Resources, Panama City, 1989.
“Hidden History: Columbus and the Colonial Legacy”
A Study Guide for Faith Communities
Put together by the Red Earth Women’s Alliance (REWA)
Wayne Ellwood, “Hidden History: Columbus & the Colonial Legacy, new internationalist, Issue 226, December 1991, http://www.newint.org/issue226/keynote.htm
What is your “gut” reaction to this article?
What events reported in this article are completely the opposite from what you learned in elementary Social Studies or high school American History courses? Why did/do we teach our children untrue history?
In the fourth paragraph under the heading “Hungry for Gold,” the author quotes the Catholic priest, Bartolome de Las Casas, and describes the hanging of natives “13 in a row, and thus piously to commemorate Christ and the 12 Apostles.” Whether your faith tradition is Christian or you adhere to another faith or philosophy, what is your reaction to this report? What was the thinking of the people who engaged in this behavior? Can you imagine any historical context in which this would be considered acceptable behavior?
The author states that “50 million Indians perished” in the 50 years following Columbus landing, many dying from imported diseases. The author later states that an estimated “15 million Africans” were shipped to the Americas during 400 years of slave trade. However, many white Americans cringe and deny the use of the words “genocide” or “exploitation” when describing white arrival, settlement and accumulation of wealth and power in the Americas. Why this denial?
Can you find anything in your faith tradition’s holy texts or the wise writings of your personal philosophy to support the ideology of racism on which our country was founded? Can you find anything to condemn it?
How is this ideology of racism being played out today?
What is the responsibility of people of faith and citizens embracing any faith or philosophy in the face of this historical and present reality? What do you now think about celebrating Columbus Day (first instituted in Colorado)? What actions are required of us?