What If Columbus Hadn't Come Here in 1492?

I was asked this question recently: “What would be different if Christopher Columbus hadn’t found us in 1492?” What if we hadn’t suffered 520 years of genocide, ethnocide, linguicide, occupation and oppression? It is hard to imagine a life without historical, intergenerational and cultural trauma and the resulting breakdown of the Native American family structure.

In the book The Grieving Indian by Arthur H. he talks about loss on a multitude of levels that is experienced by Native people. He states that in his work with over 2000 Native people almost everyone was bothered by the same two problems – unfinished grieving and separation from their parents during childhood or early teenage years. Without the necessary healing work we are left with excessive alcohol and drug use and consequently suicide as we attempt to self-medicate away our hurt and permanently end our pain.

December 26, 2012 marked the 150th anniversary of the largest mass execution in U.S. history, when 38 Dakota warriors were hanged in Mankato, Minnesota. The documentary film, Dakota 38, commemorates the U.S.–Dakota War and the historical trauma that still lingers today. Dakota 38 co-director Sarah Weston, a member of the Santee Sioux Tribe, says one of the films messages is that Native people should take a simple but difficult step: Forgive the misdeeds of the past. “The past is really, really traumatic,” Weston said. “But were going to reach our hand out and say that we forgive. Because when you are not in a forgiveness place, you’re linked to that person or that trauma for the rest of your life, all day long. And so by forgiving we’re no longer linked to that.”

On a personal note, my great, great grandfather Charles Lord, Sr. was involved with the “Sioux Indian Outbreak.” His obituary, dated March 7, 1910, reads almost like a biography.:

“Mr. Lord was nearly 82 years old, being born May 29, 1828 in St. Francis Ontario...he left Canada and came to this country. His first home was Kankakee, Illinois, and on account of fevers at this place he joined a party going to the lead mines of Galena, Illinois at that time making the acquaintance of Ulysses S. Grant.” General Grant at this time was working a clerkship in his father’s leather factory as the Civil War had not began and it wasn’t until the following year that he was appointed a Colonel of the 21st Illinois Infantry. “From Galena he moved to Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin...from this place he went to St Paul and afterwards a short stay at Fort Ripley, then in command of Captain Todd, brother-in-law of Abraham Lincoln, he was at the Fort for two years. At this time the Sioux Indian outbreak occurred at Little Falls. A man by the name of Swartz had been shot by the Indians. Mr Lord with about 15 others volunteered to go with a detachment to bring the Indians to terms. They met the Indians at Sauk Rapids , where a battle fought. Mr. Lord’s shoulder being grazed by a bullet but no one was badly hurt and they continued to chase the Indians across the Mississippi river, catching the redskins at dinner on the river bank. The Indians swam the river and in the battle 14 were killed and six wounded.”

Charles Lord, Sr. eventually married Catherine Osaugie, daughter of Chief Joseph Osaugie who was Chief and Headman of the Fond Du Lac Band of Ojibwe. I am the sixth generation descendant of Chief Joseph. Our small community has healing work of its own to do. In 1918 the Minnesota Steel Company desecrated the graves of our ancestors buried on Wisconsin Point by disinterring them and moving them to a Cemetery near by. Today the ground under the Indian graves is eroding and the band would like to return the remains to Wisconsin Point which has also been returned to the Fond Du Lac Band.

To answer the question “What would be different if Christopher Columbus hadn’t found us in 1492?” I don’t have a clear answer but I suspect there would have been other attempts to take what was ours and all of the same tactics would have been used; deceit, trickery, colonization, etc. It is time that we move forward and do the healing work that is necessary for the survival of our culture. We can start with demanding government apology and the repatriation of the desecration of Indian remains. On December 19, 2009 the U.S. passed a law that included an apology to Native peoples. The apology reads in part as follows:

“The United States, acting through Congress … apologizes on behalf of the people of the United States for the many instances of violence, maltreatment and neglect inflicted on Native Peoples by citizens of the United States [and] expresses its regret….”

That apology was never presented publicly to the American people. Now, three years later, a Conversation for Reconciliation: A Public Reading of H.R. 3326 was presented on December 19, 2012 in front of the U.S. Capitol Building. Let the healing work begin.

Donna Ennis is currently thechair of the Minnesota Indian Child Welfare Advisory Council, as well as the eastern regional director and cultural director for North Homes Children and Family Services, a professional foster care agency.