Christopher Columbus and “Colonialism”

We should use the opportunity presented by Christopher Columbus to learn from the past, both its triumphs and mistakes.

Dióscoro Puebla, “The Landing of Christopher Columbus,” 1862
Dióscoro Puebla, “The Landing of Christopher Columbus,” 1862 (photo: Public Domain)

In January, the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, covered over the murals depicting Christopher Columbus’ life. Notre Dame’s President, Father John Jenkins, explained in a letter, “In recent years, however, many have come to see the murals as at best blind to the consequences of Columbus’ voyage for indigenous peoples who inhabited this ‘new’ world and at worst demeaning toward them.” 

On April 3, New Mexico’s Democratic governor, Michelle Lujan Grisham, replaced Columbus Day with Indigenous People’s Day. On April 26, Maine’s Democratic governor, Janet Mills, followed suit. On May 6, the Town Meeting of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe on Cape Cod voted to supplant Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day. The following week, May 15, Vermont’s Republican governor Phil Scott replaced Columbus Day with Indigenous People’s Day. And evangelical Christian Pepperdine University in Malibu, California, acknowledged after two years, this May 15, that they had given their Christopher Columbus statue (a gift of the Columbus 500 Congress) to Catholic St. Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula.

Christopher Columbus has gone from celebrated explorer to historic persona non grata.

One of the main criticisms of Columbus is that he embodied “colonialism” — a catch-all term that can critique virtually anything. There was outrage in 2016 over the Saffron Colonial restaurant in Portland, Oregon, for having “colonial” in its name. Recently, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) claimed that cauliflower in community gardens is offensive. She said in an Instagram video of a Bronx community garden that growing cauliflower, rather than yuca, was a “colonial” approach to environmentalism. She defined the “colonial lens” as an imposition on native, indigenous practices.

This ignores the fact that the Aztecs and Incas colonized Central and South America, or the fact that there was brutal warfare between tribes, such as the Navajo and the Anasazi. The Jesuit North American Martyrs, as well as St. Kateri Tekakwitha, were stuck in the middle of longstanding feuds between the Iroquois and Mohawks. There were intertribal feuds, colonialism and enslavement before the arrival of Westerners. It is a tragic fact of human history that sin, even systemic sin, is present in all cultures. It is Original Sin.

Yet Christianity and Catholicism seem to be the focus of a special animus. In the 2015 documentary, “Doctrine of Discovery: Unmasking the Domination Code,” Columbus was portrayed as part of the Catholic Church’s plot for world takeover. According to the DVD cover, “Columbus and other colonizers laid claim to the lands of original nations on the basis of the idea that Christians had a biblical right to discover and dominate non-Christian lands.” According to the 38 Plus Two Productions website, “The documentary points out that the traditional teachings of original nations and peoples form an alternative to the dehumanizing domination system of Christendom.” The website cites Shawnee-Lenape author Steven Newcomb saying that 15th century Vatican documents are the “basis of the religious racism of U.S. federal Indian law and policy to this day.”

The colonization of the New World, especially that of the West, was once considered a heroic adventure, with families putting down roots in new lands and encountering new peoples. At places like Charlestown, New Hampshire’s Fort at No. 4, Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, Santa Fe’s Rancho de las Golondrinas, and California’s Fort Ross State Park, one can learn about how English, Spanish and Russian colonists eked out their existence. They had sought their fortune in new lands, bringing their families into the unknown.

Now, “colonialism” is known for its negative connotations — the destruction of indigenous practices and religions, widespread disease, exploitation of native peoples and resources. While the negative aspects of “colonialism” should neither be downplayed nor dismissed, this is no reason to erase the past altogether. The abolition of the past robs future generations of opportunities to learn from it. It is a teachable moment.

Education is supposed to be challenging. Concealing murals and statues because of presumed hurt feelings does injury to academia’s purpose. It is a sentimental education, in the literal sense.

More importantly for the Church and civilization, “colonialism” tends to be coded condemnation of evangelization. Pope Leo XIII, in his July 1892 encyclical “Quarto Abeunte Saceulo,” praises Columbus for remedying “those losses which were awaiting the Catholic Church on the side of Europe. To persuade the Indian people to Christianity was, indeed, the duty and work of the Church, and upon that duty she entered from the beginning, and continued, and still continues, to pursue in continuous charity, reaching finally the furthest limits of Patagonia. Columbus resolved to go before and prepare the ways for the Gospel.”

Leo XIII writes that Columbus “saw in spirit a mighty multitude, cloaked in miserable darkness, given over to evil rites, and the superstitious worship of vain gods.” From the present-day viewpoint, Pope Leo XIII’s writings are “religious racism” used to demean the spirituality of indigenous peoples. Now, Columbus’ desire for evangelization is seen as domination and dehumanizing.

One wonders if Columbus’ evangelism is what made his artistic presence on the Notre Dame campus troubling, or as Father Jenkins put it, “demeaning.” Evangelism is seen as a self-righteous exercise of domination, rather than an invitation to the faith. Acknowledging that Native Americans faced abuses for practicing their religion (such as those recently revealed at Canadian Catholic boarding schools), and also were kept from practicing it altogether (like the Wounded Knee massacre to suppress the Ghost Dance among the Sioux) however, does not mean dismissing evangelism altogether as abusive.

The “colonialism” charge against Columbus hearkens back to an animus against Christianity, if not Catholicism in particular. The first Columbus Day was celebrated in 1792 by Boston’s Massachusetts Historical Society and New York City’s Tammany Society. Columbus was seen as an all-American historical hero, even before there was significant Italian and Catholic immigration to the East Coast. It would be the Catholic Knights of Columbus who would get it elevated to a federal holiday. Joseph Cullen, spokesman of the New Haven-based Knights of Columbus, said in an email, “Fr. McGivney and his Knights chose him (Columbus) as a unifying figure for all Americans. It also asserted that not only was there a place for Catholics and immigrants in America, but that a prominent Catholic had already played a part in creating the young, free world around them.” Cullen added, “We support efforts to recognize the contributions of Native Americans, including establishing Indigenous People’s Days. However, we do not believe that this should come at the expense of recognizing Christopher Columbus who gave voice and representation to generations of Catholics, helping pave a path for the diverse society we have today.”

Columbus has been erased from the calendar in six states so far, and with it goes his achievements in the evangelization of Catholicism. Yet the Native American souls who were converted to Christ have significantly holy people among them.

Everyone is edified by St. Kateri Tekakwitha, the “Lily of the Mohawks.” But at Thanksgiving, Squanto’s Catholicism tends to go unmentioned, though he was rescued from slavery by Franciscan friars in Spain. Since he learned English from the friars, he was able to help the Pilgrims with agriculture and diplomacy when he returned to New England.

Black Elk, the Lakota Sioux medicine man who traveled with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, and whose book “Black Elk Speaks” was popular in the 1960s counterculture, converted to Catholicism in 1904 after the death of his Catholic first wife, Katie War Bonnet. Black Elk was a catechist. In October 2017, he was called “Servant of God” and the Diocese of Rapid City, South Dakota, opened the cause for his canonization. This important aspect of his life is omitted from the book that made him famous.

Of lesser fame are the first known alcaldes (mayors) of San Francisco, elected in 1807, two Native Catholic Ohlone men named George and Hilarion. The first recorded Catholic marriage in California was on May 16, 1773, between a Native Salinian woman, Margaretta de Cortona and a Mexican soldier, Juan Maria Ruiz, at Mission San Antonio de Padua in Monterey County. Mission San Antonio also has a reconstructed sweat lodge, since indigenous practices did coexist with Catholic ones. The Salinians of Mission San Miguel in neighboring San Luis Obispo County joined joyfully of their own free will; their artwork incorporating their themes with Catholicism remain to this day despite earthquakes and neglect.

The term “colonialism” is often used to disparage evangelism, particularly Catholicism. One can especially see this in the quest to erase Christopher Columbus from the collective memory. There have been some interesting developments, however. Last October, Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York raised the Columbus Circle statue to National Historic Register status. Replicas of Columbus’ ships are currently touring ports around the United States.

Rather than simply trashing Columbus, use the opportunity he presents us to learn from the past, both its triumphs and mistakes. Indigenous People’s and Columbus Day can peaceably coexist; there is room in the calendar, as well as our hearts and minds, for both.