Sherri Mitchell in Native Condition. Discussion »
“Columbus discovered America like a meteorite discovered the dinosaurs.”
There is no shortage of opinions regarding Columbus Day. It has been the cause of lengthy and heated debate for decades. Opponents of Columbus Day believe that the celebration of Columbus’ discovery memorializes a reprehensible history of entitlement, conquest and genocide. Proponents claim that the day is not set aside to honor the specific actions of one man, but to celebrate the triumph of discovery itself. If this is true, perhaps it would be beneficial for us to take a serious look at the principles of discovery that Columbus was operating under when he arrived in the new world.
The principles of “discovery” come out of the Roman Catholic Church. In 1452, Pope Nicholas V declared war on all non-Christians. He provided King Alfonso of Portugal a papal bull known as Romanus Pontifex. In this papal bull, Nicholas directed King Alfonso to "capture, vanquish, and subdue the saracens, pagans, and all other enemies of Christ," to "put them into perpetual slavery," and "to take all their possessions and property." Pope Nicholas claimed that those who were not Christian did not have the right to be viewed as human beings. To emphasize this point, Pope Nicholas also issued the papal bull Dum Diversas, which legalized slavery as an act of a just war. Under the authority of these two papal bulls, King Alfonso traveled up and down the western coast of Africa claiming all the lands that he discovered, and enslaving the people. This gave rise to a monumental expansion in the African slave trade, which followed Columbus to this country.
Forty years after King Alfonso pillaged the West African coastline, Columbus set off to find Asia. By that time, a well-known tradition of Christian “discovery” had been established in Europe. This gave Columbus the express authority to take possession of any lands that he discovered that were not already under Christian rule. Following his accidental discovery of the Americas, Columbus returned to Europe where Pope Alexander VI ratified Spain’s claim to the lands that he had discovered, by issuing the papal bull Inter Cetera. Inter Cetera granted Spain the right to officially conquer the lands that Columbus had discovered during his 1492 voyage. Thus, acting under the authority of the Catholic Church, Columbus returned to the Americas where he engaged in heinous acts of genocide, conquest and the brutal colonization of the indigenous peoples. As time went on, the authority granted under these papal bulls became known as the Doctrine of Discovery.
Armed with this understanding of the origins of discovery, we can now review the history of Columbus Day. The first major Columbus Day celebration occurred in 1892. In 1891, President Benjamin Harrison called for a day of national celebration to commemorate Columbus’ famed voyage. He planned the event for the following year to honor the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ arrival in the Americas. Harrison declared that it would be a day to celebrate four centuries of success and to reinforce civic pride in the nation. When I read about the first Columbus Day celebration I found a great deal of nationalistic pride and a strong nod toward the hearty frontier spirit that leads to the discovery of new lands. What I didn’t find was any correlation to contemporary events that formed the historical context for the coordination of that initial celebratory event. However, there was an event that occurred during that time period that harkened back to the days of Columbus. In December of 1890 the Wounded Knee Massacre took place. There, hundreds of Sioux were slaughtered (mostly women and children) by the U.S. military, while performing a spiritual ceremony known as the Ghost Dance. Harrison announced his plan to celebrate Columbus just a few short months after this atrocity had taken place.
The Sioux were certainly not operating under Christian rule while performing their ceremony. But, hadn’t we moved beyond the edicts of those papal bulls? Were we still operating under the edict that all non-Christian peoples be vanquished? Hadn’t the Constitution of the United States declared a clear separation between church and state, making the archaic and barbarous traditions of the Doctrine of Discovery a thing of the Past?
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posted October 14, 2013 6:30 am edt