10/07/2005

Cerebrating on Columbus and his Legacy

By: Editors Report / Indian Country Today


Fairly or not, Christopher Columbus continues to be the whipping-boy representation of all things evil with Western civilization. Staff of political life to some, tiresome to others, protests over the celebration of the admiral's day, Oct. 12, continues.

Columbus is symbolic of the ongoing cultural encounter within the Americas, and of European settling that proved immediately deadly and oppressive to Native peoples. His writings are scrutinized, and his motives and actions are increasingly condemned, by many who study them. Columbus introduced the pattern of colonization, Christianization and slavery that characterized the conquest: first by Spanish and later by Portuguese, Dutch, French and English powers.

Admittedly, Columbus was a man of his times and of his culture and training. He was as well a mystic of the Catholic prophetic tradition, a man driven by the ambition of a brilliant intuition to find the mysterious and coveted western route to the Orient; he was an adventurer who sought to gain immense riches, guaranteed by wars of conquest, to make himself a man of great wealth. For this, as was the custom of his time, his mindset accepted and welcomed the possibility of mass killing to reduce whole peoples to servitude, to serve and die as slaves.

Denial of nationhood and even of humanity followed quickly on the heels of contact, with wars of conquest always coming close behind. Columbus led the way into the holocaust of the Caribbean but his deed repeated itself and reproduced itself, first south and then north, over and over, regardless of initial greetings (mostly friendly) by Native peoples. Five hundred years have gone by; and to the Native peoples, the relative gains in scientific advancement do not make up for the horrendous loss of life, liberty and, particularly, the denial of the happy pursuit of self-determined cultures and societies.

Perhaps it cannot be helped that Columbus would be and become the symbol of the villainy. Perhaps too much focus is on Columbus himself, although certainly the dynamic of the migratory conquest of the Native Americas begs for a symbol of shame and blame to pinpoint the terror that occurred. But too much fervor directed at the long-dead mariner can turn into anger for its own sake, sometimes accompanied by ethnic slurs: negative factors that further confuse people.

The protest full of angry insult at Columbus himself - whether he was Genoese or Italian or Spanish - sometimes obscures the larger point: it is the constantly self-repeating pattern of European conquest and colonization, forcefully riding on a religious philosophy of scorn and even outright hate for all non-Christian peoples, that is the long, wide and black mantle of Columbus. This is the origin of the so-called ''doctrine of discovery'' that continues today to propel the underlying presumption of dominion of American Indian peoples by the European-derived governments. This denial of nationhood, of self-government, marks the beginning of modern racism in the Western Hemisphere - again, a pattern that persists, with dramatic impact on millions of people to this day.

A more natural way of life - not perfect but finely adapted and, as in all cultural contexts, always evolving, self-corrective and humanly guided under powerful natural spiritual systems - was here to greet the European migration. Thousands of small and not-so-small nations were uniformly decreed to be peoples and lands for the taking by Christian powers. Judged to be beyond the redemption of the Christian God, they were, more often than not, forced to give up jurisdiction over their lands and resources for the privilege of being instructed in the Christian faith.

Refusal to Christianize or simple disinterest was not tolerated. Infidel or non-Christian meant savage, primitive pagan - to be killed and enslaved at will. It implied a people without humanity or lacking preparation in the religion of the one true God, the Christ of the Catholic Church. This condemned all Indian peoples, who would be themselves, to subjugation or destruction.

Today - as we write - the last of the naturally free Indians in the hemisphere, the remote tribes of the Brazilian Amazon, are just meeting Columbus. In fact, the whole of the Amazon, incredibly reduced and destroyed just in the past 20 years, now finds the last remaining independent tribal groups of American Indians. The current rape of the Amazon is vintage Columbus.

The rapid deforestation - the constant and axiomatic destruction of the natural world, so constant in the 500-year-old Columbus narrative - now has the Indians of the Rio Pardo river system of the state of Matto Grosso on the run. They are among the last to see the white man, and he comes into their sovereign and traditional lands at the point of a chain saw and rifle.

Modern Brazil, engulfed by the corrupting rules of the global economy, is unwilling or unable to stop the destruction. The loggers who are razing the Amazon consider the Indians ''pagan savages'' who don't have the capacity to properly exploit the land and its resources, who therefore should have no right to their traditional lands.

Beyond Columbus, it is this pattern of exploitative philosophy and jurisprudence that tolerates, even mandates, the injurious and false taking of lands and properties based on a prejudiced religious argument that continues to suffocate the Native peoples of the Americas. The imposition of faith, of the denial of the right to a people's own spiritual lifeway and government, persists as well.

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