O Great Spirit,
Whose voice I hear in the winds
and whose breath gives life to all the world.
Hear me! I need your strength and wisdom.
Let me walk in beauty, and make my eyes
ever hold the red and purple sunset.
Make my hands respect the things you have made
and my ears sharp to hear your voice.
Make me wise so that I may understand
the things you have taught my people.
Let me learn the lessons you have hidden
in every leaf and rock.
Help me remain calm and strong in the
face of all that comes towards me.
Help me find compassion without
empathy overwhelming me.
I seek strength, not to be greater than my brother,
but to fight my greatest enemy: myself.
Make me always ready to come to you
with clean hands and straight eyes.
So when life fades, as the fading sunset,m
y spirit may come to you without shame.
I’m going to start this sermon with lies. As you’re probably aware, tomorrow is our national observance of Columbus Day. It’s been moved to a Monday holiday, but officially, it recognizes the arrival of Columbus in the Americas, on October 12 in the year… well, you probably know.
Like most Americans, you’ve probably had a whole lot of education about Christopher Columbus. It feels to me like we started there in every history class I ever took, from first grade to college, though, to be fair, college gave us a chapter about the people who were here first, beforehand. I’m sure you learned the rhyme, in 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. You probably forgot nearly every other date you learned in history class. Can you think of another one, off the top of your head, other than 1776? So here’s a sample of lies your teacher told you, as mentioned in the book Lies My Teacher Told Me by James Loewen, which has an entire chapter on Columbus.
- Columbus discovered America. Even if we discount the peoples that were here, there were Vikings and explorers from Siberia who came here much earlier.
- The ships endured bad weather. Nope. Columbus’ own journals say the seas were calm. We just like the adventure tale.
- Everyone thought the earth was flat and Columbus proved otherwise. Nope. It was common knowledge at the time that the earth was round, modern day flat-earthers notwithstanding
- Columbus just wanted to explore and find a trade route to the West Indies. Actually, he was pretty into conquest and exploitation, too
- Columbus made friends with the native population and gave them their name ‘Indians.’ Well, that last part is true. We’ll cover his treatment of the natives in a bit.
- Columbus was Italian. This isn’t certain either. He may have been Spanish. He may even have been a Jew.
- A quote from a 1992 high school textbook: “Although Columbus made three more voyages to America, he never really knew he had discovered a New World. He died in obscurity, unappreciated and penniless. Yet without his daring American History would have been very different, for in a sense Columbus made it all possible.” He wrote in his own journals, “I have come to believe that this is a mighty continent.”
What was it that Columbus made possible? Columbus’s first order of business upon meeting the Arawak Indians was to discover if they had any gold. The Arawak told them there was a tribe nearby that had gold, so he sailed to the other side of the island, saw some villages, and wrote about them: “I could conquer the whole of them with fifty men and govern them as I pleased.”
On his first voyage, he kidnapped 10-25 Indians and took them back to spain. Indeed, on return trips, since the gold he envisioned in massive quantities did not pan out (pun intended), he had to return some kind of dividend to Spain, and what that turned out to be was human trafficking. In 1495 they rounded up 1500 Arawaks and took them back to spain as slaves. The Arawaks, as you might not be surprised to hear, resisted, which gave Columbus an excuse to slaughter and conquer them, besides the ready-made excuse of their not being Christian. Spaniards took whatever they wanted, including the women, their food, hunted Indians for sport and murdered them for dog food. Most of these gruesome facts are available in the accounts of the Spaniards themselves, including Columbus.
The other thing that Columbus apparently made possible was wiping out of dozens of native civilizations by disease.
Charles C. Mann’s book, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, dispels the myth of the pre-Columbian Native as backward, unenlightened, a primitive holdover. In light of evidence gleaned by archaeologists over the past several decades, thriving, enormous civilizations existed here in the Western Hemisphere that rivaled the most sophisticated in the Old World.
Mann begins with an introduction entitled, “Holmberg’s Mistake.” Allan R. Holmberg was an anthropologist who lived among the Siriono people in a part of Bolivia known as the Beni, between 1940 and 1942. His account of their lives, Nomads of the Longbow, was published in 1950, and accounts for a lot of our modern perception of natives. He called the people “among the most culturally backward peoples of the world,” and saw them as the “quintessence of man in the raw state of nature.” Holmberg described them as having no clothes, no domestic animals, no culture to speak of, no religion, and he attributed this to their being primitive and backward. He, and many others, viewed native peoples as having essentially nothing worth having until Columbus brought it to them in 1492.
Though the Siriono were culturally impoverished, it was not because of their failure to develop a culture over the millennia, but because they were decimated by smallpox in the 1920s, cutting their population from at least 3000, to 150 in the 1940s. It caused a genetic bottleneck. At the same time, they were battling white cattle ranchers taking over the region and forcing them into servitude. The Siriono were not backward, but reeling from disease and injustice. “It was as if,” Mann concludes, “[Holmberg] had come across refugees from a Nazi concentration camp, and concluded that they belonged to a culture that had always been barefoot and starving.”
The image of the noble savage is one that has persisted in the imaginations of Europeans and their colonial descendants for centuries. Native peoples were brought back to Europe to display in a manner reminiscent of, and often as part of, a sideshow. Not understanding them, they were seen as holdovers from mankind’s ancient past. This idea, that Native Americans lived in a state outside time, having no effect on the land they inhabited, creating no lasting monuments, just waiting for conquest, dominated scholarly works and thereby high school and college textbooks for many decades. What purpose does this narrative serve? Mann quotes a British historian in 1965, Hugh Trevor-Roper, saying “Native people’s chief function in history is to show the present an image of the past from which by history it has escaped.”
Throughout the rest of the book Mann dips into culture after culture, showing the stunning complexity of Native American life before Columbus, and in many cases, astonishing numbers to boot. The narrative in most texts is that Pizarro overwhelmed the Inca with horses, steel, guns, and superior technology. There is truth in this, but the actual picture is more complex.
You see, smallpox arrived before Pizarro, killing their leader and his heir, which left a second son, Atahualpa, the de facto leader. But that was in dispute, and the Inca were in the midst of a civil war. It’s estimated that half their population died. This disaster unraveled social norms and caused all kinds of upheaval.
In the midst of this, Atahualpa, who had scouted Pizarro’s forces and determined that his 168 men were not a threat to his own 80,000, received Pizarro as a diplomat. The Inca were unarmed, expecting diplomacy. The Spaniards slaughtered them.
Without this diabolical attack, on a battlefield, Pizarro’s victory might have been very different. Yes, the Spaniards had guns, but on their mountainous home turf the Inca sling and bola were very effective. Yes, they had horses, but look at this picture of an Inca road. They were steep, with steps, much more suited for humans on foot and sure-footed llamas than steel-shod horses. Imagine trying to come up this road while someone was throwing projectiles at you from the bottom. I’m sure the person at the foot of this road can attest to what that might be like, and you might ask her because, it’s Janie.
Smallpox was probably the biggest factor in the easy conquest of native populations. The disease spreads quickly because people are contagious for 12 days before they begin to show symptoms, and they often fled the disease, carrying it from village to village, so it decimated Native populations like wildfire. There is a lot of disagreement on estimates of how many Natives were here before Europeans arrived, but some researchers estimate as many as 90 million or more, as compared with 10 million in Spain and Portugal at the time. Pizarro arrived after smallpox and still wrote of how astounded he was at the scope and population of Inca civilization. If these estimates are true, disease killed 80 to 100 million Native Americans by the seventeenth century — 1 out of 5 people then alive on earth. Mann draws an equivalency — if New York were similarly affected by disease today, the remaining population would not fill Yankee Stadium. In the sixteenth century DeSoto arrived in what is now Arkansas (with dozens of pigs, who may have been responsible for some of the epidemics) and described it as “thickly set with great towns.” But when the Frenchman LaSalle visited the same area in 1682 he found it deserted, with no villages for 200 miles.
The same was true further north. We’ve also been told the Thanksgiving story since early childhood, but the reason Tisquantum, whom we know from elementary school as Squanto, was fluent in English was because he’d been captured by British sailors seven years before, abducted, and returned to find his people, the Patuxet, completely wiped out by smallpox and there were English squatters in his village who called themselves pilgrims.
Mann makes an interesting argument regarding the human sacrifice practiced by the Aztecs, as well. It certainly happened, he says, and likely on a large scale. But, he says, it was in the Spanish interest to exaggerate this aspect of Aztec life, in a sort of rationale for conquest. In addition, the contemporary European society likewise had a taste for slaughter as public spectacle, heretics being burned alive, criminals drawn and quartered, bodies impaled and displayed on city walls. Perhaps, Mann suggests, the two societies were more alike than either realized. He goes on to describe the rich culture of the Aztecs in poetry and philosophy. European and Asian cultures had the advantage of trading and intermingling for hundreds of years, building on one another’s ideas, offering one another cultural exchanges. Can you imagine what might have been possible if they had approached these massive, culturally diverse societies the way they approached Asia, and exchanged ideas? Instead they were cut down by European diseases and European greed for gold, and land.
I do not have time to touch on each of the many cultures Mann discusses in 1491. He covers the Olmec and their remarkable immortal stone heads, the Clovis civilization’s stoneworking, the amazing development of maize as a staple crop, the Maya and their astonishing calendars, the massive figures of the Nazca, the challenges and development of agriculture along the Amazon, the mysteries of the mound-builders of Cahokia.
The takeaway is this: Europeans did not step into a cultural void, or a pristine wilderness inhabited by a scattering of savages. There were complex, evolved cultures across both American continents, living and interacting with the land, sometimes stewarding it wisely, sometimes causing wholesale destruction, creating great, populous civilizations, and often fractured and at war with one another (another thing that left them vulnerable to invaders). It is time to stop erasing these cultures and making them nothing more than a prologue to what we tell ourselves is “American” history, which is really a history of Europeans in the Americas.
Why does this matter? Maybe History was your least favorite subject in school, and maybe I’m boring you to tears with all of this. I hope not. It matters because we continue to celebrate racial violence and oppression. Some of you will be off work tomorrow to celebrate the life of a man responsible, directly and indirectly, for untold suffering, human trafficking, murder, and the wiping out of great civilizations whose stories and cultures are now lost to us forever. But we don’t talk about that loss. We say, “without his daring, American History would have been very different.” That’s true, but I think not in the way the textbook meant it.
It matters because, as people who seek social justice, we can’t just be nonracist. We have to be anti-racist. Seven states have rejected the celebration of Columbus day, replacing it with IPD or Native American Day. Our own UUA has joined with other organizations such as the Friends Committee on National Legislation, a Quaker organization, and others, in rejecting Columbus Day and the Doctrine of Discovery, which could be a sermon on its own. This doctrine from the 15th century was rooted in church decree, and basically said, if the people who live in a place are not Christian, conquest, colonization, and exploitation are sanctioned. It’s based on a scripture that says “Every place that the sole of your foot will tread I have given you, as I said to Moses.” In 1823, the Supreme Court ruled that discovery rights of Europeans as expressed in this doctrine applied to the United States European descendants, and the result of that decision still affects government policy to this day.
So how will we celebrate the second Monday in October? I’d like to suggest that we, as a congregation, follow UUA’s lead and adopt a resolution to reject Columbus Day in favor of IPD. UUA has suggestions for honoring IPD:
- Craft a Sunday service around Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
- Build and strengthen connections to nearby Native communities. I have to do more research, but as you probably know, the local Cherokee were murdered and relocated from here on Jackson’s watch, so I don’t know how much of a Native community still exists. This bears researching.
- Study the Doctrine of Discovery and work to eliminate its effects. I propose that we do this in future SJMs and possibly future sermons. I’d like your feedback on this.
Take action to rename Columbus day in your state.
- Provide RE programming about IPD.
- Hold a movie screening with a discussion afterward about Native peoples.
- Host a common read book discussion. They suggest Beacon Press’ An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States. If you would like, we can do this after White Fragility.
- Engage with immigration as a moral issue. Indigenous people of Central America are a big part of today’s desperate wave of immigration to the US. We have already supported a community in Central America, the Copal A community in Guatemala, who are working to educate native cultures in their area, keep their language alive, and educate people here about what they are doing. If you would like to continue to donate to Copal A, I can give you contact information to keep up with what they are doing.
- Take action for the rights and needs of Native peoples. There are a lot of ways to do this. Here are UUA’s suggestions on the subject.
Before I close, I would like to suggest that we consider taking another look at our Statement of Conscience, which doesn’t include anything about Native American rights. It has statements about racial justice, but I think it’s worth having a conversation about what things should be named specifically and which are fine as generalizations. (Some in the congregation agreed that it might be worth taking a look at, and we definitely need to replace the glass).
My blessing for you today is a Cherokee prayer:
May the warm winds of heaven blow softly upon your house
May the Great Spirit bless all who enter there.
May your moccasins make happy tracks in many snows,
And may the Rainbow always touch your shoulder.
I’d like to add:
May we work to educate ourselves and others about the history of native peoples,
And may we do our part to change the narrative of oppression.