Cerebrating on Columbus and his legacy


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

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

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.