Politics & Policy

Fantastic Voyage

Celebrating Columbus.

I am a native American. I was born here, raised here, and seldom go abroad. I am indigenous to the North American continent, as is my culture. I have as much right to the title American as anyone else. I am not a Native American, and by that I mean not descended from the peoples who colonized this continent some thousands of years before I got here. My tribe came over 300 years ago. Not that it matters. I have a right to live here, and the Native Americans have a right to live here too; same right as mine, no more, no less.

I owe it in part to Christopher Columbus, who has been honored in the United States for nearly as long as the country has existed. One the earliest commemorations was in 1792, the 300-year anniversary, organized by the Society of St. Tammany in New York City. Washington Irving’s four-volume biography of Columbus, published in 1828, helped popularize the explorer. Italian Americans began regular celebrations in various cities in the mid-19th century, and there was nationwide observance of the 1892 anniversary. Colorado was the first state to observe an annual Columbus Day holiday, starting in 1905. By 1920, the rest of the country followed, and Franklin D. Roosevelt set October 12 as the official date of observance in 1937.

However, poor Columbus fell afoul of the guilt culture of the Sixties. In particular he was singled out in the seminal 1969 Native American manifesto, Custer Died for Your Sins.” Like any other highly regarded figure of history, Columbus was deconstructed with extreme prejudice, found to be a slaver, a religious bigot, a poor administrator and fundamentally just a guy who got lost and lucked out. His voyages became a symbol for everything bad that followed, regardless of the good. Indeed the notion that Columbus Day is not worth celebrating is mainly advanced by those who rarely say anything favorable about America in the first place, and if they do it is routinely followed by the word “but.” By the time of the 500-year anniversary of his voyage in 1992, the revisionist view of Columbus was getting as much attention as any other.

There is a tinge of hypocrisy in the claims of the Columbus bashers. 1491 was no golden age. Native American tribes and civilizations fought wars for territory, booty, and slaves. Life was not good for the vanquished, if they were even allowed to live. Is anyone defending the cruel rites of the Aztecs, or the chattel status of women in most pre-Columbian American cultures? Is it the lack of science, technology, the wheel? The Columbus critics should at least be grateful for the introduction of the horse, which had a decisive impact on the evolution of the culture of the Plains Indians. The horse has become emblematic of Native American life on the Great Plains, but was not widespread in the west until about 100 years after the establishment of the settlement at Plymouth. This is to say, the tradition of the Pilgrims is as at least as venerable as anything connected to the mounted Indian, if not more so, judging by tenure.

Or is the beef mostly about the land? It is not as if title had not changed hands before. Several successive migratory waves came to the Americas before the Europeans. One can imagine that when the first of the bands that arrived 9,000 years ago showed up, those who had wandered over 2,000 years before them thought, there goes the neighborhood. Ancient residency claims can seem credible when those who occupy the land are the only source for its provenance, and there are no written records to prove otherwise. Nevertheless, in some cases we know the chain of custody. The Black Hills for example were and are sacred ground to the Sioux; but three hundred years ago, they were sacred ground to the Kiowas, who lived there on a lease from the previous occupants the Crows, that is until the Sioux drove them both out. Beati possidentes, surely.

There is definitely need for perspective on the noble savagery in the revisionist account of the pre-Columbian era, and probably room for review of the scathing accounts of Columbus himself. But from my perspective, the Columbus Day celebration is not only a celebration of the man, but of all that came of his voyages. In the wake of the discovery of the New World, Charles V of Spain adopted as his motto “Plus Ultra,”, roughly, “More Beyond,” in answer to the traditional “Ne Plus Ultra” on the Pillars of Hercules. And how much more beyond. Columbus unleashed the most significant migration in history, eventually leading to some of the greatest advancements in politics, trade, technology, the arts, science, and agriculture–the gamut of human endeavor. This was not his intention of course; what took place in the centuries after his discovery probably would have been beyond his ken. Nevertheless, over the centuries Columbus has become an icon of human imagination, exploration, and discovery, and has leant his name to the goddess of democracy. This is a man and a legacy worth honoring, whether you are a native American or not.

James S. Robbins is an NRO contributor.


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