The weather seems to final be changing, turning to Autumn. Autumn has been a favorite season of mine since childhood. Growing up in New England as I did, Autumn activities always included a trip to see my grandmother in Vermont.
Only as an adult would I understand what a fantastic stroke of luck it was that my family lived in such a beautiful area. The changing leaves, the rolling hills, and the Macintosh apples we picked that were as big a softballs and so delicious. Often we would bring bags home to give to friends.
As a child it didn’t occur to me that our friends probably weren’t going to be making a trip to VT. If it hadn’t been for the fact that my grandmother had lived her entire life in that area and had a small apartment we could squeeze into for a weekend, I wouldn’t have had those great experiences either. But as a child, you have no reference point for appreciating what treasures you have. A person might have to wait and see things with different adult eyes.
Another part of my childhood autumn was the Columbus Day parade. I loved that as well. Parades were a family event. Our house was situated a block from the parade route, another stroke of luck there. I liked parades, marching bands and Shriners in tiny cars. And I liked Columbus. He was a sailor like my dad. I learned he was a brave and smart man. Someone who knew before anyone else that the world was round and set out to sail around the worlds; he discovered America. Hurrah!
As an adult, I learned a new story about Columbus. Columbus kept diaries and his descriptions, his own words, paint an awful, horrific picture of the “discovery” of America. Why do they keep calling a discovery? What is it about that word? I’ve learned how that terminology is more meaningful then I had previously thought. It is tied to the Doctrine of Discovery, which is a principle of international law dating from the late 15th century. What does it mean to discover a new land? Well, according to a Papal Bull issued by Pope Nicholas V in 1452, it meant the sanctioned and promoted conquest, colonization, and exploitation of non-Christian territories and peoples.
This decree granted,
“full and free permission to invade, search out, capture, and subjugate the Saracens and pagans and any other unbelievers and enemies of Christ wherever they may be, as well as their kingdoms, duchies, counties, principalities, and other property […] and to reduce their persons into perpetual slavery.”
Although the Doctrine of Discovery dates back to the 1500 century, it’s not just a quaint artifact from history. While the Doctrine may seem so old and dusty as to be irrelevant, it is not political correctness but modern concern that also prompts the discussion. An 1823 U.S. Supreme Court case Johnson v. McIntosh enshrined the Doctrine of Discovery saying the native American tribes involved only have rights of occupancy not ownership . That benchmark case continues to be cited today not only in U.S. courts but also in Australian, Canadian, and New Zealand courts. The U.S. Supreme Court relied on Johnson in 1946, 1955 and 2005 cases. And it has been a focal point at the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues(UNPFII) for several years. In part because it was embedded into U.S. Indian law, creating a legal framework that has been copied around the world and continues to be used to oppress indigenous peoples.
This issue is one the UUA has taken a stand on. During the 2012 General Assembly, delegates of the Unitarian Universalist Association passed a resolution repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery.
A portion of the resolution reads as follows:
“Therefore, be it resolved that we, the delegates of the 2012 General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association, repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery as a relic of colonialism, feudalism, and religious, cultural, and racial biases having no place in the modern day treatment of indigenous peoples . . .”
As an aside, we’ll be hosting a three part Doctrine of Discovery discussion group, designed to assist congregations in organizing conversations to grapple with the Doctrine of Discovery and the UUA Board Report and Resolution. I hope that some of you would like to join me in looking at this issue more closely. I think it will help us become an advocate for indigenous peoples, locally and around the globe.
Now, let us talk more about Columbus and Columbus Day. Columbus Day is actually a relatively new holiday. The holiday started in Pueblo, Colorado in 1905 and became a national holiday in 1937 but not a federal Holiday until 1971.
I kept asking myself, why Columbus? In my research to find out more on this topic, I found lots and lots of information about what a heinous man Columbus was. There is so much real dislike for the man, such damming evidence against him, much of which is authored by the man himself, that it made me wonder why in the world someone or some group of people decided – this is our guy, our hero, someone to look up to enough to make a Federal holiday about.
I found an interesting article that answers this question for me. William J. Connell, Professor of History specializing in Italian Studies, wrote the following in American Scholar,
“When thinking about the Columbus Day holiday it helps to remember the good intentions of the people who put together the first parade in New York.”
Columbus Day was first proclaimed a national holiday by President Benjamin Harrison in 1892, 400 years after Columbus’s first voyage. The idea was that this would be a national holiday that would be special for recognizing both Native Americans, who were here before Columbus, and the many immigrants—including Italians—who were just then coming to this country in astounding numbers. It was to be a national holiday that was not about the Founding Fathers or the Civil War, but about the rest of American history. It was to be about our land and all its people.
You won’t find it in the public literature surrounding the first Columbus Day in 1892, but in the background lay two recent tragedies, one involving Native Americans, the other involving Italian Americans. The first tragedy was the massacre by U.S. troops of between 146 and 200 Lakota Sioux, including men, women and children, at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, on December 29, 1890. The massacre at Wounded Knee marked the definitive end of Indian resistance in the Great Plains. The episode was immediately seen by the government as potentially troubling, although there was much popular sentiment against the Sioux. An inquiry was held, the soldiers were absolved, and some were awarded medals that Native Americans to this day are seeking to have rescinded.
A second tragedy in the immediate background of the 1892 Columbus celebration took place in New Orleans. There, on March 14, 1891—only 10 weeks after the Wounded Knee Massacre—11 Italians were lynched in prison by a mob led by prominent Louisiana politicians. A trial for the murder of the New Orleans police chief had ended in mistrials for three of the Italians and the acquittal of the others who were brought to trial. Unhappy with the verdict , civic leaders organized an assault on the prison to put the Italians to death. This episode was also troubling to the U.S. Government. These were legally innocent men who had been killed. But Italians were not very popular, and even Theodore Roosevelt was quoted as saying that he thought the New Orleans Italians “got what they deserved.” A grand jury was summoned, but no one was charged with a crime. President Harrison, who would proclaim the Columbus holiday the following year, was genuinely saddened by the case, and over the objections of some members of congress he paid reparations to the Italian government for the deaths of its citizens.
President Harrison did not allude to either of these sad episodes in his proclamation of the holiday, but the idea for the holiday involved a vision of an America that would get beyond the prejudice that had led to these deaths. Columbus Day was supposed to recognize the greatness of all of America’s people, but especially Italians and Native Americans.”
This does soften my heart on the whole idea a little bit. The fact that it seems good intentions were behind the holiday makes me resent the fact that is ever existed a little less. But I still assert, the time for this holiday has passed.
Similar to how when we look back and see things from our childhood in a different light, we change our perspective on things. Now, I fully appreciate the gift of multiple autumn weekends spent in Vermont.
I can now appreciate that Columbus Day may have been well intentioned and maybe even did some good. But it time has passed. We can’t continue to perpetuate the Columbus myth nor can we let the Doctrine of Discovery continue to influence lawmaking around the globe.
A movement to replace Columbus day with a new holiday, “Indigenous Peoples Day”, was born in 1977 at a U.N.-sponsored conference on discrimination against indigenous populations in the Americas. “Indigenous Peoples Day” re-imagines Columbus Day and changes a celebration of colonialism into an opportunity to reveal historical truths about the genocide and oppression of indigenous peoples in the Americas, to organize against current injustices, and to celebrate indigenous resistance. Fourteen years after the UN conference where the idea was first conceived activists in Berkeley, CA, convinced the Berkeley City Council to declare October 12 a “Day of Solidarity with Indigenous People.” Since then, there has been a growing movement to appropriate Columbus Day and states such as South Dakota, Hawaii, and Alabama have changed the holiday’s name and many more cities have taken similar action.
Advocates for the change from Columbus day to Indigenous Peoples Day assert that by saying NO to Columbus and his day we are saying YES to a new future of mutual respect, collaboration, and equality. A future that respects:
– the rights of indigenous peoples
– the natural environment
– democratic and economic justice
– gender equity over global patriarchy
– free and equal speech over hate speech
Most of us are probably already changing this holiday for our families, and ourselves. But maybe we should consider taking action. Lets look for ways to support any action taken by native American groups here in Springfield and Missouri to change not only the Columbus Day holiday, but also any action that asks for repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery.
Let us change our narrative of US history, sharing the truth about Columbus. And spreading the word about how the Doctrine of Discovery’s still influences laws here and around the globe.
And let us also remember to enjoy our autumn days,
Director of Religious Education
First Unitarian Universalist Church of Springfield