Commentary
By Kaitlin Curtice 10-09-2017

“In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.”

Did you learn this phrase in school like I did? Along with a few stories about the natives that were met where Columbus landed, everything about him was painted in a heroic and adventurous spirit. But in the political, social, and racial climate of America today, we’re having a lot of conversations about our nation’s history, about our leaders, about where we are headed. We’ve been talking about taking down monuments and statues dedicated to the Confederacy, and a few people here and there have brought up the statues of Columbus that are spread across the country.

While conversations about race and privilege are taking place in America, issues and topics relating to indigenous peoples are still mostly hidden, including the conflict with Columbus Day. A few cities, like Salt Lake City and Los Angeles, have decided to celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day instead of Columbus Day. This is a step in the right direction, but more conversations need to be happening when it comes to treatment, history, and current issues with tribes in America.

I brought up recently that November is Native American Heritage month and asked friends what they’d like to know more of when it comes to Native American culture. Answers began flooding in, followed by more questions. People are both willing to learn more about the people groups barely taught to them in our school system, and are ready to listen. A great place to start is with celebrating Indigenous Peoples Day instead of Columbus Day, and it’s a great opportunity for the church to begin an uncomfortable but necessary conversation.

In honoring a man who “discovered” the Americas, we honor a man who did such acts as described by Eric Kasum on Huffington Post:

On his second trip to the New World, Columbus brought cannons and attack dogs. If a native resisted slavery, he would cut off a nose or an ear. If slaves tried to escape, Columbus had them burned alive. Other times, he sent attack dogs to hunt them down, and the dogs would tear off the arms and legs of the screaming natives while they were still alive. If the Spaniards ran short of meat to feed the dogs, Arawak babies were killed for dog food.

This is just one of the many, many atrocities against the indigenous people that came into contact with Christopher Columbus, and until America can have an honest conversation about this first interaction, about Thanksgiving, about the Doctrine of Discovery and the wording used in the Constitution to describe native people as “merciless Indian savages,” we are not facing our true history.

So we need to at least have the conversation, and for children who are home from school for the “holiday,” we should encourage families to talk honestly about what the history of Native peoples has looked like in the United States. We should be talking about what our history books are missing.

Some people are placing feathers on their doors as a sign of unity with indigenous people. Others might talk about a particular tribe, or go back over history to learn something new.

In our churches, it should be a conversation about the church’s either complicity or silence (often both) in horrible acts done against indigenous peoples in the Americas, and if we can’t have that conversation now, we can’t honestly talk about the history of this nation or issues around race. If we can’t have the conversation, we are missing something.

And when the conversations happen, the people most affected should be heard, front and center, with respect. For those whose culture is affected every year by the celebration of Columbus Day, there should be safe spaces for sharing and reconciliation.

It takes more than a few cities replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous People Day, but it’s a start. It’s a start to a conversation that we’ve been waiting to have for a while now, and will continue to try to have in hopes that America becomes the nation is has always said it is — the “land of the free.”

Kaitlin Curtice is a Native American Christian writer, speaker and worship leader. She is an author with Paraclete Press and writes at www.kaitlincurtice.com, on the intersection of culture and spirituality. 

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