Women were raped. Children were disemboweled. Men fell prey to the invaders’ swords. Within a generation, the lives and cultures of the indigenous people of the Americas were forever changed. Avarice for gold and glory took its course and decimated the population. The original inhabitants of these lands suffered cruelly at the hands of their conquerors, who happened to be my forefathers. Yet, I find it somewhat surprising that we “celebrate” what is believed to be the start of one of the largest acts of genocide ever recorded in human history.
As some of my Native American friends inform me, to celebrate Columbus Day is as morally repugnant to them as it would be for Jews if we as a nation chose to celebrate Kristallnacht, the start of the Nazi-driven Holocaust.
Christopher Columbus, an Italian sailor, was hired by my ancestors to expand the emerging empire of Spain. His European eyes were among the first to gaze upon what would eventually be called the Americas. Seeing the Taíno people, Columbus’ first reaction was not the lack of political organization of the island’s inhabitants or the geographical placing of these islands within the world scheme. Rather, by eroticizing the naked bodies of these inhabitants, visions of Paradise were conjured up, with Columbus receiving the indigenous peoples’ awe and love.
Columbus and his men felt themselves invited to penetrate this new erotic continent, which offered herself without resistance. “Virgin” land and the bodies of indigenous women merged so that the conquest of one became a prelude to the conquest of the other. Columbus men exercised their “right” to take indigenous wives and daughters by force, without respect or consideration of their honor or matrimonial ties. In fact, Columbus’ diary records indigenous accounts about an island called Matino believed to be entirely peopled by women. Rather than visiting it, Columbus returns to Spain, possibly indicating that he and his crew have had their fill of native, “erotic” women.
But when the native population protested rape, Columbus had the noses of all who refused to submit to his authority cut off. In other instances, the indigenous people were castrated and forced to eat their own dirt-encrusted testicles. Or they were simply thrown to the dogs.
Bartolomé de Las Casa, an eyewitness to these events wrote, “[The Spanish soldiers] would test their swords and their macho strength on captured Indians and place bets on slicing off heads or cutting of bodies in half with one blow.”
While on the island which the inhabitants called Cubanacan, Las Casas recorded the death of 7,000 children within three months because their overworked mothers were so famished they were unable to produce any milk to nurse them. Babies were also used for target practice. Rather than seeing their babies suffer, mothers resorted to drowning them out of sheer desperation. As disturbing as these sadistic acts are, what is worse is that this genocide was committed in the name of Christ. The Spaniards proclaimed their intentions to an indigenous population unfamiliar with the conquistador’s foreign language, not understanding what was about to befall them.
While the Spaniard talked, the Taíno listened to the following: “God the Lord has delegated to Peter and his successors all power over all people of the earth, so that all people must obey the successors of Peter. Now one of these popes has made a gift of the newly discovered islands and countries [in America] and everything that they contain to the king of Spain, so that, by virtue of this gift, their majesties are now kings and lords of these islands and of the continent. You are therefore required to recognize holy Church as mistress and ruler of the whole world and pay homage to the Spanish king as your new lord.”
When the Taíno failed to agree, the requerimiento continued by stating: “I certify to you that, with the help of God, we shall powerfully enter into your country, and shall make war against you in all ways and manners that we can, and shall subject you to the yoke and obedience of the Church and of Their Highnesses. We shall take you and your wives and your children, and shall make slaves of them, and as such shall sell and dispose of them as Their Highnesses may command. And we shall take your goods, and shall do you all mischief and damage that we can, as to vassals who do not obey and refuse to receive their lord and resist and contradict him.”
Yet, wherever there is oppression, resistance exists. In eastern Cubanacan, a cacique (a chieftain) named Hatuey created a loose confederation of Taínos to resist the invading colonizers. For three months he carried out a style of guerrilla warfare against the Spaniards. Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar, the first Spanish governor of the island led an expedition in 1511 to capture the renegade chieftain and pacify the people. Once apprehended, Hatuey was condemned to death, to serve as an example for others. As Hatuey was about to be burned at the stake, a Franciscan friar attempted to convert him to the Christian faith with the promise of heaven and the threat of hell. Hatuey is reported to have asked if Christians went to heaven. The friar answered in the affirmative, to which the condemned Hatuey retorted that he did not want to go to heaven where he would see such cruel people.
Today, Hatuey is a modern symbol of resistance, specifically against foreign powers, such as Spain and later the United States. More importantly, Hatuey can also function as religious symbol, a non-Christian example of Christ’s mission for those residing on the underside of history. Those supposed Christian invaders who claimed allegiance to the God of the Bible while ignoring the Bible’s basic call for the justice were not the true representatives of Christ. The violence they unleashed witnessed to their disregard for the very mission of Christ whom they claimed to represent. Ironically, Hatuey, the so-called heathen, best depicted Christ. Like Christ, Hatuey cast his lot with the persecuted and suffered death for the cause of justice at the hands of those desiring to enslave him and his people.
In the name of Christ, butchery, enslavement, thievery and genocide was justified. The Christ proclaimed to the so-called “heathens” was not the Christ of the oppressed, but the Christ of empire, the Christ of militarism, the Christ of power and privilege, the Christ of the dominant culture. Refusal to deal with this conquering Christ, upon which the “Christian” nations of the Western Hemisphere are based, only condemns us to continued the worship of this Christ in our dealings with other nations today.
Our actions as a nation only confirm that this conquering Christ remains alive and well, justifying present-day foreign policies. What then, is to be done? Definitely not making saints out of their oppressors. Where do we begin? Saying “I’m sorry” to Native peoples is simply not enough. Many Native Americans reject the argument that their dispossession from their tribal lands was some past event. Although several Christian denominations have apologized to indigenous people for the conquest of their land, there is a lack of recognition that the taking of Native lands constitutes an ongoing theft.
As Archbishop Desmond Tutu said, “If you take my pen, what good does an apology do, if you still keep my pen?”
Native people continue to live out the consequences of over 500 years of colonialism. Apologies cannot fix the problem, but we can at least begin the long road toward healing by honoring their request not to celebrate the start of their genocide and the man who began the process. So, let me ask, when you claim the love of Jesus, which Jesus are you professing? Jesus the conqueror or Jesus of the marginalized? And when you express a desire–based on your faith–to struggle for peace, justice and reconciliation, how will your words be manifested in deed this Columbus Day?