Indigenous Peoples’ Day


Columbus Day?
Brian Zahnd

It’s Columbus Day in America. Sort of. While still a Federal holiday, less than half the states observe Columbus day. And in some states and in many cities today is observed as Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Where Native Americans still have a fairly visible presence Columbus Day can be a bit awkward.

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 Spain for the first time I hardly “discovered” Spain. Yet from my perspective I was making a new discovery. (I did refrain from claiming to now own Spain.)

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?

Speaking of reading. I wish everyone would read The Earth Shall Weep.

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?
For a start…
Maybe walk softly.
Listen to Indigenous people.
Feel more than a little conflicted.
Find a better hero than Christopher Columbus.


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 European-Americans learn to lament the sins that made our “greatness” possible?

(Perhaps this sort of contemplative perspective is possible only through contemplative practice.)

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.


PS: Here’s some provactive 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