Blaming Columbus Misses the Lessons of History
As a proud member of both the Osage Nation (the Ni-U-Kon-Ska, "People of the Middle Waters"), and the Knights of Columbus, I am disgusted and terrified by the ever louder calls for the cancelation of Columbus Day, and the tearing down of monuments dedicated to the great maritime explorer, Christopher Columbus.
I am disgusted because the attacks are unfair to the man, who was far better than most for his time.
I am terrified because by blaming Columbus for five centuries of history, we ignore the majority of that history, and risk repeating it. For any Native American, that should be truly terrifying.
Today’s protestors--with great vigor but little historical sense--seem ever ready to look for scapegoats. They want to cast all blame for the atrocities committed against American Indians at the feet of Columbus. Such efforts only serve to literally white-wash and revise the true history of the Americas.
As American citizens, we need to remember our history, both the good and the bad, so that we are not set up to repeat history’s mistakes. We need to take an honest look at all our fore-fathers. We need to give them the credit they deserve for what they did well, while being mindful of the things that they should have been done differently or better.
We should not tear-up the Declaration of Independence on the grounds that Thomas Jefferson was a slave-owner. We should not tear down the statutes and memory of Christopher Columbus on the grounds that some people in the New World committed heinous acts, or on the grounds that, with little evidence, Francisco de Bobadilla, a man with suspect motivations, accused Christopher Columbusof brutality as a governor--especially since that “brutality” was manifested in Columbus’ execution of several Spaniards for their mistreatment of the Indians.
Bartolome de las Casas – Columbus’ contemporary and renowned “Defender of the Indians” –defended both the explorer’s motives and his character.
Recent scholarship has come to the same conclusion. His biographer and professor emerita of Stanford University Carol Delaney points out that Columbus’ core motivation was religious. She laments that he is so often blamed for the actions of others. Delaney also notes that his relations with Native Americans tended to be “benign.”
Columbus was a man ahead of his time. There were many who were not.
Yet the latter get a pass, and Columbus, the proto-immigrant, gets blamed. Perhaps that is easier than discussing the complexities of America’s historical and present circumstances.
What we lose in the rush to blame Columbus is perspective on how America has come to the present moment in its troubled relations with Native Americans.
Spain had outlawed almost all enslavement of indigenous people by 1500. Yet, two hundred years later, enslavement of Indians thrived in British Connecticut. Three hundred and fifty years later, California, would allow what can only be called Indian enslavement in 1850.
In Connecticut and California the wars of attrition against the Indians were Anglo-American, not Spanish.
Peter Hardeman Burnett, the Gold Rush governor of California, summed up the Anglo-American perspective when he said: “It is inevitable that the Indian must go.”
By contrast, Columbus and the Spanish sought coexistence, however complicated that sometimes became.
The problematic reservation system was not Columbus’ idea--nor was it the idea of the Spanish. It was an Anglo-American invention.
Columbus Day is a day for us to remember that bold and courageous voyage in 1492 that lead to the first sustained contact between two very different worlds. It is a day to remember the many good things that have come out of that contact, such as the founding of the United States, the first lasting democratic-republic.
It is also a day to remember our failings as a country, such as the trail of tears and the forced removal and re-education of native children in the twentieth century--episodes centuries after Columbus that the explorer neither caused nor condoned.
Each day, I see the continued hardships facing the first people of the Americas. I see the poverty, the alcoholism, the lack of quality education options, and the constant interference in Indian tribes’ right to self-determination.
While activists are quick to unfairly blame Columbus for all of this, I have yet to see a group of protestors from the city get their boots dirty while trying to make a difference for those in need on the reservations. I do, however, see the constant presence of committed groups, like the Knights of Columbus, providing quality coats for children in winter, boxes upon boxes of food every fall, and love and friendship every day.
This Columbus Day, instead of spreading a hateful and misleading history from the comfort of our easy-chairs, I would call on all Americans to follow the example of groups like the Knights of Columbus.
Donate your time, effort and money to the hurricane relief efforts in Puerto Rico, Florida and Houston. Reach out to the peripheries in your own neighborhood. Bring companionship to your lonely elderly neighbor. Form friendships with those who are suffering.
Rather than dubiously assigning blame to one man, together we can truly help make the United States a better place for all of us, and achieve a harmony and understanding between native and immigrant peoples that has too often eluded us in our history.
Patrick T. Mason is past state deputy of the Knights of Columbus in New Mexico and a member of the organization’s board of directors.