Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Stop Saying Columbus 'Discovered' the Americas—It Erases Indigenous History

From AlterNet:

It is unlikely that his terminology had adverse ramifications for the local indigenous peoples, but the language of colonists has long had a tragic part to play in the destruction of tribal peoples across the world. For centuries, tribal lands have been referred to as ‘empty’ in order to justify their theft for commercial, military or conservation reasons. After all, if a region is uninhabited, so the expedient thinking goes, there are by definition no human rights to address. Similarly, racist prejudices – the labeling of tribal peoples as ‘backward’, ‘uncivilized’ or ‘savage’ – have inculcated a popular attitude of disrespect and fear, so underpinning (and even justifying, in the perpetrator’s mind), the appalling treatment to which tribal peoples have been subjected.

More here.

I posted a link to this essay on facebook earlier today with the sort of ironic and joking statement "Happy Columbus Day!"  A nice discussion with a guy who was with me in the theater department at LSU ensued.

Chris I feel like when you say Columbus didn't "discover" America because there were people already there when he got there misses a point somewhere. I don't feel like "discovery" is about being the absolute first person to reach something as it is finding something *you* didn't know was there. Columbus "discovered" the Americas for Europe, just as Leif Erickson had done for the Vikings, and just like the Native American tribes that trekked across the continental divide had done before him. None of them knew of the explorers before them, and all of them found something no one in their respective civilizations knew existed.

I feel like if you get *that* semantic with discovery, you might as well say America was "discovered" by the tetrapods that first crawled out of the ocean.

That said, I think there ARE plenty of reasons to re-think our celebration of Christopher Columbus, but this is a silly one to me.

Ronald Chris, the point isn't to quibble over the word "discovery," but rather to criticize the entrenched Eurocentrism of history as understood in the West. History, is, after all, the narrative establishing who we are collectively, what's important to us, and why. So when we recount history to children that makes indigenous people invisible, we necessarily minimize the massive crimes of our civilization, thereby enabling the continuation of these crimes today. That is, I wonder what American imperialism would look like if Americans fully understood the blood price Native Americans paid for our comfort. I mean, there might not be any American imperialism, might not be any racism. We definitely need some contrition, and poking holes in the wildly popular, but woefully incomplete, Columbus narrative is a good start.

On the other hand, it would be a bad idea to consign Columbus to the proverbial dustbin of history: he did some horrible things, but he also did some great things, and it would be foolish to ignore his accomplishments. Really, we just need to have some honest history, as opposed to history-as-propaganda.

Chris But is there someone telling a story about how Columbus showed up on an empty shore, "discovered" no indigenous tribes, built a house, and thus. America was born? I agree that we shouldn't whitewash over the conflicts between the explorers and the natives, and we should absolutely poke holes in every happy-thanksgiving story about how awesome Christopher Columbus and the Pilgrims were, but I don't see how stripping him of the word "discovery" does that.

I totally agree with the idea that we need an honest history, and we should absolutely be talking about the bad things people did along with the good, but the article seems to make a very clear argument that if anyone ever once knew about the thing you found, even if you or anyone you had ever known or read of didn't know it was there, you did not "discover" it. That somehow, using the mere word "discover" effectively erases the history of anyone who came before, and I don't buy that.

Ronald But Chris, like I said, the word "discovery" is simply a quibble. Columbus did, in fact, discover America, but only from the viewpoint of Europe, which means that the declaration "Columbus discovered America" is particularly problematic, especially if you're one of the people whose ancestors were discovered and then immediately exploited by him, Spain, and then Europe more generally--actually, if you were an Arawak, the first native group he encountered when he made landfall at Hispaniola, now Haiti/Dominican Republic, you have no descendants living today because the Arawaks were extinct by the early 1540s. But I digress. I didn't get that thrust out of the essay. To me, the whole discussion about the word "discovery" was completely in the context of Eurocentrism, but that might just be because of the reading I've already done on the subject.

Adding: I think it's totally fine to say that Columbus discovered America, but the person saying it ought to also include a word or two about how he immediately enslaved and killed Indians and ushered in a 500 year reign of European exploitation and domination of non-white peoples. He's a mythical hero, yes, but, like Oedipus and others, a tragic and deeply flawed hero, too.

Chris I do get what you're saying about the eurocentric tendencies of the historical narrative, and i'm totally with you there. I just got distracted by what I felt was an unfairly strict interpretation of the word "discover." haha

Ronald Dude, I hear you. The whole, for lack of a better name, anti-Columbus movement has been going on for some twenty years now, and the arguments and protests have taken on a real black-and-white tone, which is unfortunate because it's a totally nuanced dynamic we're talking about here. I mean, from the perspective of that movement, Columbus is a villain, and only a villain, and if you don't join them in Columbus-hatred, you're a total dick. But that's just wrong and ill serves the study of history, and therefore understanding who we are. Indeed, it's just as wrong to do that as it is to paint Columbus as being without flaws. Personally, I think we need to find a way to have heroes and national mythological figures that we understand to be flawed human beings, just like all of us, without diminishing the importance of their accomplishments.

Shit man, even the Bible recognizes this, with King David the adulterous murderer, and Noah the drunken and incestuous freak. Maybe this can be a philosophical wedge for Americans who want their heroes to be pure: "All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God."