To Columbus or Not to Columbus?

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Today is Columbus Day in the western hemisphere (known as Día de la Raza in many Latin American countries, and as Fiesta Nacional in Spain). But as a holiday, it’s toast. And it should be. Columbus didn’t discover “America” anyway, or prove the world was round.

So, who are the good guys and bad guys? Answer: Humans. But our sound-bite-happy mediaverse doesn’t do complexity, so the narrative has been reduced to this:

article-2449265-1896643300000578-404_634x707Old version:  Noble explorers from Europe found a nearly empty world teeming with natural riches and settled here. Oh, yeah, and they encountered a few hopelessly primitive people along the way and taught them how to be civilized.native-american-playing-flu

New version: Evil murdering racists from Europe found a world occupied by noble people living together in harmony, and then tortured them and committed mass genocide against them.

Both narratives are oversimplified. The settlement of the Americas by Europeans was a sometimes good, often heinous adventure. Humans throughout the world at the time wrongly accepted subjugation and enslavement of other cultures as natural, and that informed their actions. Europeans–against their own religious and cultural teachings–murdered and enslaved, but also, in response to those same teachings, sometimes befriended and strove to protect the natives. The indigenous peoples themselves were usually peaceful but sometimes violent cultures composed of individuals, not types, who frequently made treaties with their neighbors, but also sometimes enslaved them.

Swapping one narrative for the other diminishes everyone. Turning Columbus Day into Indigenous Peoples Day reduces all Europeans to murderers and all Indigenous Peoples to victims. It may be too late to stop the momentum, but allow me to suggest something like this:

  1. Celebrate Indigenous Peoples on a different date. We could honor and explore their millennia-deep history and varied cultures, rather than merely mourn their subjugation by Europeans (and horrendous decimation by European diseases). It should be their day, after all, not a used, infected one. And what if we…
  2. Turn Columbus Day into Americas Day, a title already employed by several Latin American countries (Día de las Américas). What if we used the date to discuss the entire history of the Americas, the cowardice and courage, the evil and the nobility…

And everything in between.

About mitchteemley

Writer, Filmmaker, Humorist, Thinker-about-stuffer
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34 Responses to To Columbus or Not to Columbus?

  1. Pingback: To Columbus or Not to Columbus? – JCT – Born Again

  2. The idea that peaceful bliss dominative native life is certainly an error. The people of the Caribbean and Central America were cannibals and practiced human sacrifice on a massive scale. . One reason Cortez had Indian allies against Montezuma is because they were tired of the raids and having their children eaten by the main powerful tribe of Aztecs . Enslavement of Indian people was certainly an evil holocaust but there was one going on long before the Spanish arrived.

    Liked by 5 people

    • mitchteemley says:

      While cannibalism and human sacrifice were certainly practiced in Mesoamerica, there’s a great deal of disagreement as to how widely. Certainly among the Aztecs. And among the Carib, who preyed on the Taino, a gracious and peaceful people, according to Columbus’ own journals, whom Columbus allowed to be subjugated.

      Liked by 1 person

      • In his book, The True History of the Conquest of Mexico
        WORK BY BERNAL DiAZ DEL CASTILLO (1568) he describes his efforts as a foot soldier with Cortes in the 1519-1521 conquering of the Aztecs. He describes markets where human flesh was sold, describes how temples and alters were drenched with blood and describes stacks of skulls here and there in cities and villages in numbers like 10,000, 40,000 and 100,000. A good but little known primary source. I can understand why Spaniards were so disdainful of the Aztecs and valued those lives so cheaply as they saw them as subhuman monsters because of the sacrifices and cannibalism . It seems that the Aztecs of what becomes Mexico City were the dominant tribe of people who called themselves Aztecs while the rest of the numerous tribes of Mexico had other names so we are in some misrepresentation when we refer the entire population as Aztec.

        Like

  3. People do tend to view things in binary – good/bad – when in fact the world operates in more shades of gray.

    Liked by 6 people

  4. Gary Fultz says:

    Yes, I’m not sure how much work it will take to patch the holes in that ship

    Liked by 3 people

  5. HAT says:

    I like your idea.

    Part of the problem we [who are reading this, and who are living through this particular cultural moment] have is that both of the stories you mention are, technically, “myths” – that is, not the opposite of truths, because all myths contain at least some truth, but “stories told with symbols that encode and transmit the worldview and values of a culture.” And we [see above] haven’t yet managed to create “a” culture out of the clashing ones that have produced those two different myths.

    But doing as you suggest could be one more step in the right direction.

    Liked by 5 people

  6. Very cool! I like it. We need to stop looking at history with linear eyes, as if everything is a simple binary between good and evil. It reminds me of a comic book, not that there is anything wrong with comics, it is just that the real world is full of diversity, shades of grey, and moral weirdness. 🙂

    Liked by 6 people

  7. A.P. says:

    Very refreshing, Mitch. I would add that gray stories don’t make salable news. The more black and white, the better it sells. Thanks for this.

    Liked by 4 people

  8. Mitch I wrote about this last year in my blog so we are both ahead of the curve!
    Yes, there were already several million people living in the Americas when the Europeans arrived. Having studies the First People to use in my next book, here is a great, true story.
    The Iroquois Council, at its peak, consisted of six tribes, that working together, controlled our entire Northeast and part of the Midwest. The Council had devised a unique set of rules to govern both their overall territory and their individual tribes. Their system of government was studied by Benjamin Franklin and became the general framework for our emerging nation. And, although the Council Elders were all men, they were chosen, and could be removed, by the women of each tribe.
    Fascinating and true. But I could not help but notice that old Ben did not include the part about the women in each tribe have the final power!
    So think about our nation’s real First People as we honor them with a long overdue holiday!
    Brad

    Liked by 3 people

  9. backuphill says:

    I’ve made my decision, but it doesn’t seem to fit with the current narrative being propagated these days…here is an interesting article/opinion piece (It’s time to stop scapegoating Christopher Columbus) published yesterday. Obviously some would call it biased, but some wouldn’t. I just found it interesting since it brings up the issues so many seem to overlook when their narrative doesn’t fit with the facts.

    https://nypost.com/2019/10/13/stop-scapegoating-christopher-columbus/

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Paula Light says:

    Humans have always been horrible to each other. I have to work today, so I’m grateful to unions, way back when, who decided we should have lunch breaks. Otherwise, I might not have seen your post!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Clearly you’re guys taking this “discovery” thing out of context for its time, purpose and for some unstated disingenuous reasons of yours. Conflating other natives elsewhere is dishonesty and the same as making some pejorative statement, we must all “look alike”.
    As a native American myself, the outrage is all BS and we all know it. Why in Gods name would any honest Native American want a placebo day named after them by the group that initially invaded and conquered them? If you’re not Native American, stay out of it and STHU.

    Liked by 1 person

    • mitchteemley says:

      I’m sorry I’ve offended you, my friend. It’s my understanding that it was Native Americans who first proposed an Indigenous Peoples Day in the U.S., and who still widely support it. http://aktalakota.stjo.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=9210

      Like

      • I’m never offend by those who are ignorant of facts.
        I do feel offended by those with no skin in the game feel they can save our dignity by further injury, by speaking for us because they’re erudite’s and we’re just uninformed simpletons.
        Only a narcissistic group of Natives joining some political bandwagon would find it necessary to speak for all Natives alike, void of everyone’s permission.
        Certainly you’re not suggesting because one white, black or brown person(s) prattles something, we should all just assume they’re speaking for everyone of that particular race or group?

        Like

      • mitchteemley says:

        You seem angry with me about things I haven’t said, don’t claim, and don’t believe. I don’t claim to speak for Native Americans, certainly don’t believe they are “uninformed simpletons,” and don’t believe any “one white, black or brown person” (including you or I) speaks “for everyone of that particular group”–which is why I have not said anything of the sort. I do not claim to speak for anyone other than myself. Do you? You’ve made it clear that you find a U.S. Native American Day offensive (“a placebo day named after them by the group that initially invaded and conquered them”). Do you have evidence that a majority of other Native Americans feel this way about the quickly-growing holiday? If so, I’d earnestly like to know. The opinions I’ve read on the topic thus far from Native Americans (other than yours) are positive. I promise not to make assumptions about what you think or believe, and only ask that you return the favor.

        Liked by 2 people

  12. I am choosing to Columbus. My employees have the day off as well, and I hope they are having as wonderful of a time with there family as I am with mine.

    History is a multifaceted subjective account that is dependent on the eye that creates its story. It is never an either or phenomenon. Having a Native Grandmother Gabe me one perspective. Studying European history as an undergraduate gave me another. Neither were right. Neither were wrong. They both fostered growth for an aspiring mind.

    This touches upon a key problem in today’s society, where people are blindly following a monologue they are being fed instead of working the dialectic as a true means for soulful growth,

    Thank you for this great article 👍

    Liked by 3 people

  13. You have some great points here, both about the many false dichotomies that persist in our society and this history, which is often hard for me, having a mix of European and Cherokee ancestry. I think both of your ideas are brilliant and I’ll happily jump on that band wagon if you get it going 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

  14. TEP336 says:

    I have the benefit of a unique perspective on this particular day, as I am of partial Native (Aztec and Cherokee) descent. Of course, I also carry a healthy dose of Spanish, English, French, Scots, and Irish ancestry, just to round things out.

    What can I say? Some European explorers crossed the Atlantic ocean and a cultural clash occurred. There are examples of this all over the planet, to mixed results, but for some reason we focus on this one because we think it makes the Europeans look bad. For the life of me, I can’t figure out why. Their arrival on this side of the planet was a Godsend, literally and figuratively.

    Let’s just do away with the myth of the “noble savage”, shall we? When the Europeans arrived, the various tribes were locked in a variety of different actions we would today call ethnic cleansing, mass enslavement, disenfranchisement, the wholesale theft of territory, the kidnapping, torture, rape, murder, and ritual human sacrifice of each other. They simply called it “Tuesday”, or whichever word corresponded with it in their languages. It was business as usual for them. We now call those actions crimes against humanity, and rightly so.

    My Aztec ancestors were positively demonic. Their neighbors hated them because their entire history was one of murder, rape, theft, and grotesque behavior, and that was just what followed the wedding of the first Aztec Emperor. The short version is that the Emperor married a neighboring Chief’s daughter, murdered her after the wedding, and went to the reception dressed in her skin.

    What followed was a trail of abuses so disgusting and vile that the Spanish had no trouble finding allies on the Mexican shores. Once the other tribes found out that the Spanish were moving against the Aztecs, they gleefully jumped in for a little bit of justice.

    Were the actions of Spanish Conquistadores brutal and nasty? You bet, but so were the actions of the Aztecs. Don’t get me wrong, evil does beget evil, however, my ancestors were NOT the innocents in all of that mess. In fact, the whole Spanish vs Aztec war started because the Aztecs sacrificed one of Hernan Cortez’ men to their gods. Had they left the man alone, things might have gone different. Monctezuma would have paid a ransom and saved his empire, but his brother and the people wouldn’t stand for it.

    Folks, I used to buy into the narrative of the noble savage and the greedy white man. It’s a lie, as much as Columbus day is. Nobody was innocent, both sides perpetuated incredibly horrendous crimes against each other. The only reason why people tend to side with the Natives is that they lost and everyone loves the underdog.

    Like

  15. It’s somewhat different from the perspective I have on things, but this was a very worthwhile read.

    The reason for that different perspective is because, as far as I can tell, there was religious justification for conquering indigenous territory at that time. You might be interested in reading more about the Papal Bull “Romanus Pontifex” from the 1450s; that’ll show some of the religious justification at the time.

    As a result, I don’t think it’s as simple as religious teachings being part of the solution (and in fact, it seems like it was part of the problem here).

    While we have different perspectives on the role of religious teachings, I think you’re absolutely correct that the narratives overall around Columbus/Europeans are really oversimplified.

    Liked by 1 person

    • mitchteemley says:

      I understand your issue with the “religious justification” of some of the acts committed; I was referring to the teachings of Christ. Even so, some brave priests stood against the actions of the conquistadors. Yes, the narrative is a complex one.

      Liked by 1 person

      • TEP336 says:

        Bartolomeo de las Casas comes to mind. I agree that much of the violence of the past was justified through one misrepresentation of Scripture or another, and it was all done in contravention of the teachings of Jesus. Some of it, like the Crusades, were simply a matter of perspective, and the wrong one is taught today.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Oh, okay then. Thanks for clarifying! Yes, in terms of the teachings of Christ, I agree with you–what was done went against His teachings.

        Liked by 1 person

  16. Ann Coleman says:

    Exactly! Why do we have to reduce everything to over-simplified extremes that rob humanity of their diversity and individuality? I think your suggestions are quite sensible…which means they will probably not be implemented. Sometimes I think we live in a world where the more divisive and bizarre an idea is, the better chance it has of being signed into law….

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Mitch, your ideas are good ones. I wouldn’t be surprised if something along the lines of Indigenous Peoples Day and Americas Day eventually are created.

    Neil S.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. I applaud this post’s suggestions and the recognition (both in the post itself and in many comments) that history is complex and nobody was entirely blameless.

    Agitating to simply replace Columbus Day by Indigenous People’s Day would give Trump’s base another excuse for paranoia w/o accomplishing much that I can see.  Would rather see effort going into things like voter registration.  The mission statement of
            http://www.fourdirectionsvote.com/
    is simple: “Advancing equality at the ballot box across Indian Country.”

    Liked by 1 person

  19. carhicks says:

    Great post Mitch. I totally agree. So glad we do not celebrate this day in Canada.

    Liked by 1 person

  20. Mick Davies says:

    Good Thoughts Mitch. I am saddened by levels of jingoism that have blossomed across Europe and in the UK in particular but this is not helped by all those who only wish to see history in black and white terms.
    Thank heavens we no longer have Empire Day as we did when I was a child!

    Liked by 1 person

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