From the journal of Christopher Columbus:
In all the world, there is no better people nor better country. They love their neighbors as themselves, and they have the sweetest talk in the world, and are gentle and are always laughing.
They… brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things, which they exchanged for the glass beads and hawks’ bells. They willingly traded everything they owned … They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance … They would make fine servants … With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.
As an explorer, Columbus was not the first to reach the Western Hemisphere. Native Americans had been here for 10,000-20,000 years, and Vikings and Chinese are among those others who hold prior claims. Even after four attempts, Columbus never realized his goal of finding a western ocean route to Asia. As a “founding father type figure” he never set foot in what is now considered America but landed in the present day Bahamas, Cuba, and Haiti.
As a Christian example he enacted terrible cruelties to friendly natives: assuming unlawful rights of authority; robbing and subjugating whole nations of their freedom and entire capital; allowing his men to rape, murder, and pillage at will; and deliberately leading the way for the genocide of millions, considered by many to be the worst demographic catastrophe in recorded history.
So why do Americans celebrate Columbus Day?
Perhaps it is because this holiday is foundational to establishing the American myth that Western European exploration, technology, science, governance, religion, etc. are all superior to the cultural contributions of the rest of the world — but that is just not true.
For example, prior to European contact, great civilizations thrived in America with unparalleled techniques in urban planning, micro-agriculture, macro-enviromental management (including ecology, xeriscape, agronomy, botany, forestry, and raised bed, naturally fertilized gardening), sustainable architecture (including passive solar heating), psychology, philosophy, religion, ethics, science, math, medicine (including brain surgery and dentistry), government, language, education, rhetoric, intercontinental economic trade, successful peacemaking, etc. Most Americans have little correct knowledge of Ancient American civilizations.
If you think large cities are a mark of ascendancy (and I don’t), then consider the fact that Cahokia (East St. Louis) was one of the largest urban centers in the world in its day, (apex circa 1200 A.D.). The city of Cahokia had in excess of 15,000 residents with numerous suburbs and agricultural centers creating a total urban population of more than 40,000 residents. It was only surpassed in size in America in 1800 C.E. by Philadelphia, PA.
The point is not whose “stuff” is the best but rather why can’t we celebrate it all without pulling from despicable despots of the past like Columbus? Euro-Americans landed in America. The accomplishments of the people who were here prior to their arrival should be celebrated and memorialized along with those who came here later.
If Woody Guthrie was right, “this land was made for you and me.” Why can’t we share it together? This includes all of our history and all of our accomplishments. We have begun to do this with other ethnic groups. For example, many non-African Americans are now proud to celebrate the fame of Jackie Robinson. American sports fans everywhere take pride in Robinson’s entrance into a formerly segregated sport — which led the way for other African-American athletes.
When Americans continue to celebrate Columbus Day we do damage — not just to Native America but to all Americans. Jews will never celebrate the rise of the Third Reich. Ugandans will not likely hail the legacy of Idi Amin, Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge Regime, et. al. This Columbus Day, let’s see Columbus for what he was and begin to celebrate new legacies of the past that better represent where we want to be as an America of the future. Maybe by next year we will be officially celebrating a pre-Columbus day!
Rev. Dr. Randy Woodley is a Keetoowah Cherokee Indian descendent and the author of Living in Color: Embracing God’s Passion for Ethnic Diversity. He teaches history, theology, and culture at George Fox Evangelical Seminary in Portland, Oregon.