Columbus Day?


Columbus Day?
Brian Zahnd

It’s Columbus Day in America. Well, depending on where you live. South Dakota, Oregon, Alaska, and Hawaii don’t recognize Columbus Day. Where Native Americans still have a fairly visible presence Columbus Day can be a bit awkward. In South Dakota today is a state holiday — “Native American Day.”

Growing up in Missouri I knew Columbus Day as the celebration of the “discovery” of America. Which lets slip the obvious fact that the story is being told from a European vantage point. When I arrived in Portugal for the first time a few years ago I hardly “discovered” Portugal. Yet from my perspective I was making a new discovery. (I did refrain from claiming to now own Portugal.)

Contrary to what you may have thought, Columbus did not arrive on the shores of an empty wilderness, but on the shores of a world more populous than Europe. Tenochtitlan (Mexico City) was larger than any European city. But armed with guns, steel, and germs, and driven by the conquistador’s lust for gold and slaves, the population of the Americas was decimated. Columbus discovered America like that asteroid discovered the dinosaurs.

When Columbus first encountered the inhabitants of the “new” world, he wrote this in his log book:

“They do not bear arms, and do not know them. They have no iron. Their spears are made of cane. They would make fine slaves. With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.”

Well isn’t that nice. Columbus’ initial impulse upon encountering the indigenous other was to think, “Hey, these people would make good slaves!” Columbus was barely off the boat before the native inhabitants were being captured and sold into slavery. Columbus wrote, “Let us in the name of the Holy Trinity go on sending all the slaves that can be sold.” Apparently Columbus was a religious man…proposing slave trade in the name of the Trinity!

In Hispaniola the Arawak people were either sold into slavery or forced to supply a certain quantity of gold every three months. Those who failed to meet the quota had their hands cut off. That’s when the mass suicides began.

Modern scholarship places the population of Hispaniola in 1492 at no less than four million people. By 1520 it had fallen to 20,000. Do the math! The Niña, Pinta, and Santa María had brought Death to the Americas.

Bartolomé de las Casas, a young Spanish priest with the Columbus expedition, was appalled by the barbaric cruelty of his fellow “Christians” and spent the rest of his life documenting the abuses. Regarding the practice of forcing native men to work in the mines while the women worked in the cassava fields, La Casas writes,

“Thus the husbands and wives were together only once every eight or ten months and when they met they were so exhausted and depressed on both sides they ceased to procreate. As for the newly born, they died early because their mothers, overworked and famished, had no milk to nurse them, and for this reason, while I was in Cuba, seven thousand children died in three months. Some mothers even drowned their babies from sheer desperation. In this way, husbands died in the mines, wives died at work, and children died from lack of milk. In a short time this land which was so great, so powerful and fertile, was depopulated. My eyes have seen these acts so foreign to human nature, and I now tremble as I write.”

Do we tremble as we read?

As you may have guessed I’m not so keen on making Columbus the object of any kind of holiday (holy day).

So what do we do?
I don’t know.
Maybe walk softly.
Be a little sad.
Be a little mad.
Feel more than a little conflicted.
Find a better hero than Christopher Columbus.
Because in the end he did not live up to his name “Christ-bearer.”
Maybe you could replace Christopher Columbus with Francis Xavier—
If you like your heroes adventurous and well-traveled.

Would it be too much to ask that we learn to lament the sins that made our greatness possible?

At least realize that we are all so deeply implicated in systemic sin that there are no quick fixes and there is no easy answer to the question of what justice looks like. We are all so deeply implicated that we should be quick to ask for mercy and slow to condemn anyone. One more thing…

The next time you hear someone espouse Manifest Destiny know for certain that you have heard a mighty and manifest lie.

I’ll leave with some provocative verse from Native American poet John Trudell.


To God
John Trudell

We hope you don’t mind. but we would
Like to talk to you. there are some
Things we need to straighten out. it’s
About these Christians. they claim to
Be from your nation. but man you
Should see the things they do. all the
Time blaming it on you

Manifest Destiny genocide. maximized
Profit sterilization raping the
Earth. lying. taking more than they
Need in all the forms of the greed
We ask them why say it’s gods
Will. damn god. they make it so hard
Remember Jesus. tell them not to kill
Him. rather they should listen
Stop abusing his name and yours

We do not mean to be disrespectful
But you know how it is. our people
Have their own ways. we never even
Heard of you until not long ago. your
Representatives spoke magnificent things
Of you which we were willing to believe
But from the way they acted
We know you and we were being deceived

We do not mean you or your Christian
Children any bad. but you all came to
Take all we had. we have not seen you
But we have heard so much. it is time
For you to decide what life is worth
We already remember

But maybe you forgot


Here is John Trudell reading some of his poem…

(The artwork is Amerikanska Folk, 1904)

  • Dan the Story Man

    Spot on, man.

  • In 2012, Obama settled 41 tribal trust cases — including Trudell’s Santee Sioux Tribe over federal mismanagement of trust funds and resources — for a combined total of $1.023 billion.

  • Brilliant

  • Thanks for sharing this.

  • Really?? I don’t remember hearing any of this.

  • Yes, really. Van Jones was promoting it before he was outed as a 9-11 “Truther” and dismissed from the Obama administration.

    See “Obama Moves to Settle 41 Tribal Trust Cases for $1 Billion,” by Rob Capriccioso, 4/11/12
    Indian Country Today Media Network, LLC

  • Yeah. I ended up looking it up. That’s wild. Wow.

  • infopower

    …and the mindless masses increasingly use the Gift of Internet to wallow in shameless narcissism. Collective, Shameless Humanity will only change via individual effort to improve each of their own Character. Each will BE Amazed at the 24/7 experience of Living with their Own New Improved Personhood. Only Then will the Mob Stupidity melt away, TOO !!!

  • Jack Hyde

    “I said, “I beseech You, O LORD God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who preserves the covenant and lovingkindness for those who love Him and keep His commandments, let Your ear now be attentive and Your eyes open to hear the prayer of Your servant which I am praying before You now, day and night, on behalf of the sons of Israel Your servants, confessing the sins of the sons of Israel which we have sinned against You; I and my father’s house have sinned. We have acted very corruptly against You and have not kept the commandments, nor the statutes, nor the ordinances which You commanded Your servant Moses. Remember the word which You commanded Your servant Moses, saying, ‘If you are unfaithful I will scatter you among the peoples; but if you return to Me and keep My commandments and do them, though those of you who have been scattered were in the most remote part of the heavens, I will gather them from there and will bring them to the place where I have chosen to cause My name to dwell.’ They are Your servants and Your people whom You redeemed by Your great power and by Your strong hand. O Lord, I beseech You, may Your ear be attentive to the prayer of Your servant and the prayer of Your servants who delight to revere Your name, and make Your servant successful today and grant him compassion before this man.”
    ‭‭Nehemiah‬ ‭1:5-11‬ ‭NASB‬‬

  • Jim Moore

    Just read all the comments, excellent, I get to be the lone voice of dissent! Everything you say is true, Brian. Columbus’ expeditions were massively barbaric, inhuman really in the way they treated the people groups they encountered. And the invasions that followed them perpetuated, extenuated, and expanded that barbarity. But it is also true that if you are a follower of Jesus you will one day get to sit with Columbus and talk about why he did what he did and what he thought he was doing. Because the very documents that lay out Columbus’ crimes lay out his deep faith in Jesus. He is our brother in Christ. And he is just like us.

    It is so easy to stand on our liberal soapbox and condemn those who came before us for their sins which are so obvious to us. But what people like Columbus know that we don’t know is that we are using their soapbox. For they did the same thing. By his day’s standards he was the liberal thinker. He was the radical. He was pushing against the culture of his day steeped in internecine religious wars.

    So if its unacceptable to honor our brother and intellectually vacuous and hypocritical to attack him – not to mention un-Christlike. What can we do with him? His life changed all of our worlds, we dare not ignore him.

    I would suggest we see ourselves in him for he truly is our brother and we are like him. All of us – even the Native Nations convulsed in a thousand year land war that he interrupted. Maybe this is easier for us Southerners. We are under no illusions that our people were great or good. But really none of us should be. All of us are beneficiaries of innocent blood spilled. (All of us are beneficiaries of innocent spilled blood? Where have I heard that before.)

    And so on Columbus Day maybe we should honor Columbus by ceasing to dehumanize our political and religious opponents for the day. Maybe we should express humility that we received this boon of the world we have at someone else’s expense. And maybe we should be a little more merciful to those who we feel we must crush in order for our desires to be achieved. In America that would included socialists AND the tea party.

    Or we could declare ourselves justified in doing almost anything to those bad people we must stop and then see what our grandchildren say when they step onto Columbus’ soapbox.

  • Paul Nuechterlein

    I’m not sure where you are disagreeing with what Brian wrote. I didn’t see arrogant condemnation. Are you saying that we should honor Columbus for the brutality he sponsored? Or are you saying we need a more honest and humble assessment of the man and ourselves on this day? I see Brian’s column as the latter. So what exactly is your point of disagreement?

  • Jim Moore

    I’m saying the second. If you re-read Brian’s piece you will see that Brian is ashamed of Columbus. Nowhere does he suggest that he (or we) should identify with Columbus. We should feel sorry that Columbus did what he did. I suppose that’s a small first step. But the greater step which Brian never takes in this column is to warn us that we are just like Columbus.

    And we are just like Columbus. That’s really the only thing interesting about the guy – that his liberality and intelligence and passionate faith sat right alongside his greed and racism.

    A proper response to Columbus isn’t to condemn him but instead wonder “what am I doing right now that seems perfectly fine but might horrify my great grandchildren.” And then, more importantly, to see that we have a God reaching out to us that is loving us and has saved us in spite of our colossal blind spots which we can never cure.

    Think about it like this. When you meet Columbus in the new Heaven and Earth what will you say to him? Do you think you will want to tell him how horrible he was? Or do you think you will want to tell him you were just as bad and Jesus redeemed both of you. Living like Jesus right now means acting like we will act then – now.

    The smart move, the kingdom building move, is not to write blogs of graceless judgement (Imagine Paul saying if God doesn’t condemn Columbus then no one can.) but instead to use these horrible stories of an example of God’s surpassing grace.