The American Holocaust
What comes to mind when you hear the word genocide?
Your mind probably conjures up images of Hitler, the Holocaust, maybe even Darfur or Rwanda, for good reason. The Holocaust is well known and is a common subject taught in school; Darfur and Rwanda make their way to the news or classroom occasionally. Yet, chances are indigenous Americans are far from your mind whenever genocide is mentioned. Native Americans bring to mind buffaloes, teepees, war paint, horses, and headdresses. In standard schooling we're taught about their hunter-gatherer lifestyles, their housing arrangements, Sacagawea, and that friendly meal with the pilgrims known as Thanksgiving. It is rare that Native Americans and genocide are spoken of in the same breath. However, this sugar-coated version of their life stories fails to address the atrocities done to the indigenous Americans by Christopher Columbus and those who followed.
We learn that in 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue with three ships and discovered the New World. History books portray him as an American hero. But, it is the things Columbus "did" that we do not read about that are the most worthy of our attention. Not only was Columbus not one of the first 2 discoverers of the New World but he is certainly not worthy of the hero title. Columbus began and set precedence for a genocide that plagued the Americas for the next 400 years. Nearly no indigenous people survived the American Holocaust. The crimes committed by Columbus and those who followed deserve to be held at the same level as the Holocaust. The mass extermination of the indigenous Americans by Christopher Columbus was genocide, and celebrating Columbus Day only furthers this idea of Columbus as an American hero which plagues the minds of the American people.
Christopher Columbus, his crew, and his three ships left from the city of Palos, Spain, in August of 1492. They left behind a Spain suffering from disease, violence, and intolerance towards Jews, and they set out into the Atlantic where they soon came across the islands of the Caribbean. Columbus traveled from island to island, planting a cross which claimed the land for Spain, and called his work - his "execution of the affairs of the Indies" - the fulfillment the prophecies in Isaiah (Manuel). In his early days on the islands he describes them as a paradise of kind and beautiful people. Due to the poor treatment they received from Columbus and his men ' the indigenous people soon became hostile and were stereotyped as sub-human savages (Gelman).
In his book American Holocaust, David Stannard, a professor of American Studies, describes Columbus' journey from island to island. Stannard reveals that upon encountering indigenous people, Columbus read to them a statement informing them of the truth of Christianity and the necessity to swear their immediate allegiance to the Pope and the Spanish crown. When the indigenous people refused, or rather didn't understand the statement continued: "We shall powerfully enter into your country and shall make war against you ... 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 ... " ( 66). And Columbus did as the statement had promised, taking nearly 600 slaves during his first voyage (Stannard). The destruction was also unintentional, as European diseases began their own conquest of the indigenous people. Though the assault on the Americas had begun, it was Columbus' second journey that really initiated the invasion of the Americas.
In early 1494, Columbus and his crew of 1500 men aboard 17 ships arrived in Isabela, Hispaniola, where Columbus had chosen to build his New World (Gelman). Upon arrival, an unknown sickness, thought to possibly be swine flu, broke out among the Spaniards and with virulence among the indigenous Americans. Before long there were more indigenous people dead than could be counted. Every time the heavily armed Spaniards set foot on shore they brought with them diseases and ferocious dogs, and they set about killing and looting the indigenous people already overcome by sickness (Stannard). The indigenous people quickly discovered that between disease and sheer killing force, fighting the Spaniards was futile.
Columbus increased his efforts, bringing together hundreds of troops, cavalry, and more attack dogs and set out across the country systematically slaughtering ill and vulnerable indigenous Americans by the thousands. Spanish accounts of this genocide tell of their terrible acts. The accounts include such horrific acts as taking babies from their mothers and killing them with rocks, and running through villages testing the sharpness of their swords on unsuspecting victims. In one such village named Zucayo, the Spaniards claimed 20,000 lives in one raid (Stannard). When Columbus arrived on the island of Hispaniola in 1492, the estimated population was eight million. Just four short years later about four million indigenous people were dead, and by 1535 the indigenous people were all but eradicated (Stannard). This is only one account of one island; the happenings on Hispaniola were not confined to just this one landmass.
The other islands of the Caribbean and their indigenous populations faced the same fate as the inhabitants of Hispaniola. If you can imagine, the cruelty was only magnified. After ravaging the Caribbean, the Spaniards moved on to mainland Mexico, first arriving at Tenochtitlan, where they came in contact with the Aztecs, Incas, and the rest of the indigenous populations of South America. While others, such as Cortés, were responsible for the deaths of these populations, it was the raids of Hispaniola by Christopher Columbus and his men that set a model followed by the Spanish for many years to come. As time progressed the genocide moved north into what is today the United States, resulting in the near eradication of the Native Americans there as well. It is incredibly difficult to give statistics about this American Holocaust because the population of the Americas was not well documented before Columbus and others arrived in the New World.
By the time the Europeans set out to count the indigenous people, a substantial number had already perished. In his article "Selected Death Tolls for Wars, Massacres and Atrocities Before the 20th Century," Matthew White, librarian and author of The Great Big Book of Horrible Things: The Definitive Chronicle of History's 100 Worst Atrocities, compiled statistics of the American Holocaust from multiple authors. These popular approximations estimate between 40 and 100 million indigenous South, Central, and North Americans were killed during this American Holocaust. In parts of the Americas 98-100% of the population was exterminated (White). And yet, regardless of the size of these numbers, they are just statistics. They do nothing to describe the torture, the pain, and the gruesome, systematic killing of these people.
It is apparent, therefore, that this American Holocaust is the most devastating genocide the world has ever seen in terms of sheer numbers and expansiveness. The American Holocaust swept across two continents, lasted four centuries ' and slowed only when there were few left to kill. Yet, despite all of this, most have never heard of the American Holocaust. Most have no idea that the original inhabitants of the place we now call home were victims of the worst genocide of any race in history (Charleston). Most have no idea that it was Christopher Columbus who started this American Holocaust.
Despite what I would call over-whelming evidence, there are still those who support the celebration of Columbus as a great explorer. They call Columbus a flawed hero, but a hero no less. Daniel J. Flynn, an American conservative and author, argues that "fixation on his sins obscures his accomplishments," namely discovering two whole continents. However, historical records show us that Columbus was not the first discoverer of the New World, not even the first European. Warren H. Carroll, a leading Catholic historian and author, and the founder of Christendom College, states that Columbus was the first person to collect data and really analyze it to hypothesize that there had to be land between Europe and Asia. Despite this, Columbus still arrived at the New World believing Cuba to be Japan and the mainland to be China. Considering the land mass of North America lay between him and China, it is no real miracle that Columbus happened upon it. Supporters of Columbus say that he set out in the name of God, battling all odds with the explicit purpose of discovery (Carroll). However, it seems to me that calling oneself a man of God and making a risky journey does not make up for the direct and indirect mass murder of entire races of people.
Even supporters of Columbus acknowledge a rough relationship between Columbus and the indigenous Americans, but they claim that the account of the interactions between the indigenous people and Columbus and his troops is exaggerated. Flynn and Carroll claim that Columbus was not the genocidal murder as he is portrayed. They argue that Columbus discovered, not a peaceful people, but ferocious savages who often practiced cannibalism and regularly had wars amongst themselves. Yet, even Columbus himself called the people kind and generous, and stated that the indigenous people were shocked at the presence of the Spaniards' weapons and vicious dogs (Rodriguez-Salgado). Flynn contends that the discovery of the indigenous Americans and the New World allowed the indigenous people to discover Europe. Flynn argues that Columbus discovered naked, savage people with no language and no technology, and he ridded them of human sacrifice and cannibalism by converting them to Christianity. Again, I must beg the question: does any of that outweigh the conquering and killing of whole races of people? I have come to the conclusion that no, it does not. Not even close.
Around 70,000 B.C. Siberians crossed over into what is now Alaska (Loewen). These people were the first discoverers of the New World, not Christopher Columbus. It is also apparent from the evidence of the genocide of the indigenous Americans that Christopher Columbus is not the hero we make him out to be. So why is the information we are given so sugar-coated? Why are we not taught the truth about the Europeans who came to the New World and their treatment of the indigenous Americans? Why is it that when we speak of racism and genocide, indigenous Americans are nowhere to be found in the conversation? Steve Charleston, a Choctaw Indian himself, claims that this American genocide is not heard of because there cannot be "crime without a victim." Statistics clearly show the victim has been all but eliminated, and from the beginning Native Americans have been belittled and have been the victims of the racist propaganda. The propaganda has intentionally directed attention away from the actual events of the American Holocaust and has portrayed them as unfortunate but necessary to use the things in the land that the natives were too primitive to use (Charleston).
We have been raised to celebrate a day dedicated to Christopher Columbus. We have been shown over and over again the images of peaceful and happy Native Americans and pilgrims sitting down to a large Thanksgiving feast together. These things have, in a way, brainwashed us into overlooking any wrong doing by the explorers, mostly because we are not taught of it, but also because this sugar-coated portrayal of the Natives is blocking the view of what really occurred. Additionally, the word "genocide" has been made synonymous in our education with concentration camps, the Holocaust, and the killing of Jews. Because of what we have been taught of indigenous Americans, and the narrow coverage of genocide, it's no wonder most people don't see the indigenous people and genocide as related topics.
The underlying cause of this faulty portrayal of Columbus is how his life story is taught to young and impressionable children in the classroom. Teaching the frightening truth to seven-year-olds may be out of the question, but one small stride we can take is correcting how Christopher Columbus is portrayed in our schools and society today. Columbus Day, dedicated to this American hero" is recognized as a federal holiday and celebrated on the second Monday of every October. It's safe to say that next to no one actually celebrates Columbus on this day. More than anything, Columbus Day is a day for us all to take a long weekend and possibly spare a few moments to observe some passing thought about this man. However, the inclusion of the day on the United States' list of federal holidays only contributes to the misguided views of Christopher Columbus already plaguing the minds of Americans.
Columbus Day is meant to commemorate the landing of Christopher Columbus in the New World on October 12th, 1492, and the first celebrations of Columbus took place in 1792 as a celebration of Italian-American heritage. In 1937, President Roosevelt proclaimed Columbus Day as a national holiday originally observed every October 12th. In 1971 the day of observation was changed to the second Monday in October. This day is also recognized in some Latin American countries as a day to celebrate Hispanic culture's vast roots, and it is known as Día de la Raza, or literally Day of the Race (Columbus Day). Columbus Day is becoming an increasingly controversial holiday as more and more people realize the actual nature of Columbus' voyages to the Americas. As we more closely examine the actual history for ourselves, it becomes apparent that Columbus Day is actually a rather gruesome and inappropriate day to celebrate. Columbus Day recognizes everything Columbus accomplished during his life. However, Columbus' accomplishments by no means outweigh the genocide he committed on the indigenous people.
Celebrating Columbus and his accomplishments is analogous to the celebration of Hitler, the Nazis, and the Holocaust. Hitler did horrid things to the Jews, but he was fantastic at leading and mobilizing a large group of people. Nevertheless, no one would consider creating a holiday in his honor. So why do we give a man who began a genocide that resulted in more deaths than the Holocaust his own holiday? It is impossible to know why Columbus has been portrayed in the way that he has. Maybe it was done purposefully to overshadow the crimes committed on the indigenous Americans, to protect the population from the gruesome truth. Maybe we don't learn of this American Holocaust because after Columbus did his part, other conquistadors and the settlers that followed treated the indigenous people just as poorly, and we don't want to believe that our ancestors were genocidal murderers. Rather, we slip into a cultural amnesia and tell this beautiful story starring Columbus as the valiant hero and the settlers as the brave protagonists who set out into the unknown and beat all odds to colonize the New World. It is understandable why we may be hesitant to put the full, gruesome story in our history books and lay it out before eight-year-olds. However, there must be a happy medium between completely glazing over the actual history, and presenting elementary school children with a graphic account of what was done to the indigenous people. There is no reason to glorify our past, to cover up its blemishes. No country in this world is perfect, for we know perfection is unattainable. No country has a clean past, a beautiful present, and a promising tomorrow. Yet, here we are trying to paint a picture of our past that is as unblemished as possible. As we know, if we do not learn from history we are condemned to repeat it. As genocide continues to plague countries today, this becomes the very reason Americans need to know the actual accounts of what occurred when Columbus landed on the shores of the New World.
We can begin to expose Americans to these truths by removing Columbus Day from the list of federal holidays or by renaming and repurposing the day and allowing it to serve as a day to learn about our Nation's history. In some parts of the country the replacement of Columbus Day has already taken place. Native Americans' Day is celebrated in South Dakota instead, and Berkley, California, celebrates Indigenous People's Day. Some schools in Florida use Columbus Day to teach students that Columbus had faults, and others with large Native American populations don't celebrate Columbus Day at all (Keller). The rest of the country needs to follow suit.
The best way to achieve a repurposing of Columbus Day is to bring this issue to the attention of our senators or representatives. We must inform them that we are appalled by what Christopher Columbus did to the indigenous people of America and we are shocked that we still celebrate this man. We must tell our senators and representatives that we, as a country, need to rethink Columbus Day, that it should be a day of remembrance for all the indigenous Americans who suffered and a day of learning about the history of the Americas. It seems impossible that so many Americans are still wholly unaware of the genocide that occurred right here in our homeland with the wealth of information readily available at our fingertips. However, if we are to avoid repeating our past, we must actually learn the history. We can begin to make the truth known by removing Columbus Day or repurposing it to serve as a day of remembrance for the American Natives and learning the true story of their lives.
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