Christopher Who?
Discovering the Americas

General Introduction

On the twelfth day of October, 1492, Christopher Columbus, an Italian, sailing under the imperial flag of Spain, dropped anchor in what is now known as the Caribbean. His three galleons the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria landed on a small island called Guanahani, now one of Bahama Islands.

Columbus' arrival in the Caribbean changed the history of the Americas forever. 1992 will mark the 500th anniversary of his historic landing. Throughout Europe, the countries of Central and South America an other parts of the world, billions of dollars will be spent to commemorate and celebrate his “discovery” of the “New World.”

Spain, for example, will be hosting the World's Fair and The Olympic Games during the anniversary year. The celebrations are big business. Corporations are looking to capitalize on 1992. Even Coca-Cola has launched a Fifth Centennial campaign.

Another story

But there is another side to the story. For the Native peoples of the Americas, for black people and for many others, 1992 will not be a year of celebration. For these peoples, October 12, 1492 is a tragic day in their history. As they see it, Columbus didn't “discover” America, he invaded it.

With the support of the church and the Spanish monarchs, Columbus initiated a conquest that eventually enveloped two continents; a conquest that robbed Aboriginal Peoples of their lands and trampled upon their religions, cultures and societal structures; a conquest that sold them to slavery and culminated in an act of genocide and the near extinction of a people; a conquest that continues even today, 500 years after “Columbus sailed the ocean blue.”

Throughout North, South and Central America, thousands of people are organizing to resist the official anniversary celebrations and tell the real story of the conquest. Norman Taylor is one of these people.

Taylor is a Toronto social activist who has been researching and organizing around this issue for some time. Paul McKenna interviewed him for Catholic New Times. We have also invited Greg Staats, a native photographer and Carl Starkloff, a Toronto theologian, to share their reflections on 1992, these are linked at the end of this piece.

Interview with Norman Taylor

By Paul McKenna

Mckenna: How did you become interested in this issue?

Taylor: There have been three significant factors. First, my parents taught me about Native Peoples as a child. They were cotton mill workers in England when Mahatma Gandhi visited and appealed to that group for support. They agreed with Gandhi's analysis and so had a good understanding of the dynamics of race and oppression as well as non-violence. I grew up realizing that Native Peoples were living in a culture very different from mine, and not just different like Polish or Italian or Americans are different, but in a larger, more significant way.

The second was learning about that difference from books like Edmund Wilson's With Apologies to the Iroquois. I began to understand that where European-based culture was concerned with dominating and subduing nature, aboriginal peoples around the world aimed at living in harmony with it.

Thirdly, as I became an adult, I began to have direct contact with Native Peoples. In the early 1960s, I was part of an expedition down the Amazon that visited several primitive tribes. There we saw people who were open and gentle, who shared things and welcomed strangers, who took delight in colour and design, in children and animals, who had a wonderful sense of humour and who were living in harmony with their jungle surroundings.

But on the way out of the jungle, we met a troop of Brazilian soldiers who wanted directions to the tribe we`d just left. We saw their guns and knew enough about Brazilian-Indian relations to feel very comfortable misdirecting them.

The other example would be the friendship I developed with Kai Yutah Clouds, a Mohawk. He taught me things about Native Peoples that my white-authored books had left out.

Then, in 1977, he and I made a documentary on the mercury poisoning of Native Peoples in northern Ontario.

McKenna: Is Kai helping with your current work around 1992?

Taylor: No, sadly. Kai and I were about to make a documentary on the genocide of Native Peoples in Guatemala, where the majority of the population is Native, when the Guatemalan government was alerted to his presence in the country. He was seized in a public square in broad daylight and was driven away. His body was found the next day, badly tortured.

But they only got his body, not his spirit. That spirit is alive in those who are questioning the celebration of this 500th anniversary.

McKenna: Is the goal to stop the celebrations of this anniversary?

Taylor: Well, certainly to trim their sails, to help people to understand that the celebrations are in fact a celebration of the conquerors, not the vanquished. Columbus' arrival was the beginning of a conquest, not a liberation. It signalled the start of the looting and theft and deliberate wiping out of Native Peoples, their cultures and their religions.

McKenna: Can you comment on the use of the word “discovery?”

Taylor: Look how history is falsified by that word. How could Columbus “discover” people who had already been here for 30, 000 years? It would be humourous except for the disastrous consequences which flowed from the Eurocentric view.

In other words, if Central Europeans didn't know something, it didn't exist. And when they finally learned it, they credited themselves with “discovering” America; an Italian Catholic flying the flag of the Spanish monarchy gets the credit.

The comedian Dick Gregory summed it up years ago in a routine in which he talked about being out with a friend, walking, when they spied an unoccupied car. Gregory turned to his friend and said: “Hey, let's go discover that Cadillac!”

The New World was Spain's Cadillac.

McKenna: Do you have facts and figures that outline the extent of the decimation of the Native populations?

Taylor: Yes. And they're very clear and stark. When Columbus arrived, the population of the Americas was approximately 80 million- almost four times the population of Canada today. That was 1492. By 1650, however, 95 per cent of those 80 million had been killed by torture, massacres, slavery and disease, all caused by the arriving Europeans.

Put another way, Columbus and those who followed him Cortez in Mexico, Pizzaro in Peru, Cabral in Brazil caused the deaths of 1, 000 Indians every year for 200 years! The Native Caribbean population was virtually wiped out.

Let me give a couple of examples- Haiti and Cuba. One of Columbus' first acts in Haiti was to ship 500 Indians back to Spain where they were sold and died in slavery. It was slavery so terrible that mothers actually murdered their children and committed suicide themselves to avoid it.

Then, with 200 armed soldiers, a handful of cavalry and trained dogs, Columbus attempted to wipe out the Indian population of Haiti. When Columbus first landed, Haiti had a population of 200, 000. Twenty-two years later only 29, 000 were left.

Cuba originally had over half a million Native People. By 1570, there were only 270 households left. And that had taken less than 80 years. So you can see the direct line from Columbus down to that Brazilian troop we met in the jungle. “The only good Indian is a dead Indian” is a phrase many of us have heard. The death squads in Central America continue the reality of that phrase.

McKenna: How could this have been justified. I mean... how do you explain the sheer brutality of Columbus and the other European conquerors?

Taylor: European expansionism was propped up, in part, by Christian missionary activity. “Outside the church, there is no salvation.” In other words, the only Indian was a baptized Indian; but even baptism and Christianization did not make them equal to the Europeans.

So Native Peoples became the recipients of a cultural projection. They were everything that European culture wasn't, and they came to be seen as “primitive”, as less evolved than the Europeans. In short, they were regarded as sub-humans, “lazy stupid pigs” as Voltaire called them. That image is telling, for we know the attitude Western humans have to other members of the animal kingdom like, for example pigs. Since we've been taught that pigs don't have souls, we can treat them as we want. Or, as Ben franklin put it, we can “extirpate these savages (the Indians ) in order to make room for the cultivators of the earth.”

This sense of the Indian as inferior provided the Europeans with a theological and ideological rationale for perpetuating a number of evils.

Listen to this 1452 declaration of Pope Nicholas V: “... you may have full and free permission to invade, capture, and subjugate the Saracens and pagans and whoever else is unfaithful or an enemy of Christ... in whatever location... and reduce these people to perpetual slavery.”

Pope Nicholas' declaration was supported by his three immediate successors. So when you add the personal permission of spiritual and temporal rulers to this perception of the Indians as inferior, you sanctify the killing and claim rewards. “The meek shall inherit the earth” wasn't meant to apply, it would seem, to Native Peoples.

In the log of his journey, Columbus wrote: “the best thing in the world is gold... it can even send souls to heaven.” Notice that the best thing isn't love, compassion, charity, or justice, but gold and it is tied to the theological prize of Heaven. By linking the search for gold and Heaven to the idea of subjugating savages, you get a Pizarro demanding a king's ransom for the leader of the Incas. And when Pizarro got the ransom of gold, the Incan leader was strangled and decapitated.

Another justification for the brutality can be found in the difference between the motives which in the difference between the motives which cause humans to kill and the motives which cause other animals to kill. In general, other animals kill only for food, for biological necessity. Their prey is another species and the killing isn't motivated from emotions or beliefs, only by the need for food. Their world is incorrectly pictured as a dog-eat-dog world. Dogs don't eat dogs.

“The best thing in the world is gold... it can even send souls to heaven.”
Christopher Columbus

Human animals, on the other hand, kill their own kind as well as other animals, and with great regularity through war and murder. The motives are not food but ideas, emotions and beliefs greed, lust, hate, revenge and so on. The “other” side is wrong and my side is right; the “other” person is an infidel and I have the True God; the “other” side is perverted and I am normal.

The Indians represented everything Europeans weren't. They had a different religion, different language, different culture, different colour of skin, different values. and given the European, hierarchical worldview, it doesn't take much to see that non-white people would be viewed as inferior and therefore as disposable.
When you add to this equation, the European ethic of acquisitiveness for material things, and juxtapose this with the non acquisitive ethic of the Native People, you clearly have a recipe for disaster.

Not long ago, a small plane flew over a tribe in Brazil and the Indians fled at the sound. The plane dropped packets of sugar. The Indians returned, tasted the sugar and liked it. The small plane returned, and this time the Indians didn't flee but stood and waved. The plane swooped low and machined-gunned them to extinction. Their land was soon in other people's hands.

McKenna: With so much historical evidence indicating that Columbus wasn't the first European to set foot in the Americas, why is his landing considered to be such a pivotal historical event?

Taylor: Columbus had a papal and regal mandate to colonize. The Spanish monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, commissioned him to find and colonize India. Columbus was expected to extract resources (spices) that would support and stimulate Spain's economy. Instead he reached the Americas where he found Native Peoples and gold.

Columbus, you might say, opened the door to the conquest and provided a model for the European colonization of the Americas. Others quickly followed: the Portuguese in South America, the English, Dutch and French in the United States and, of course, the English and French in Canada.

That's a powerful combination when you get the blessings of both the pope and your monarch for an invasion. The pope made Queen Isabella not only “proprietor and master of the New World” but also patroness of the Inquisition.

As one native leader remarked, “Would you trust Colonel Sanders to babysit your chickens?”

The Vikings had merely come, visited , built shelters and left. But Columbus followed the Caesars. He came, he saw, he conquered!!

McKenna: What do you see as the main historical consequence of Columbus' landing?

Taylor: I don't know if it's the main one or not, but certainly an important one is the issue of land. Remember that Columbus thought he was halfway around the world; that's why he named the natives “Indiaans.” As a European, he looked at the land as wilderness, and the people as wild. The word “savage” has a French and Latin root that means “in the wild.”

Both the wilderness and its wild inhabitants were to be tamed and controlled. Just as the people were subjugated, so was the land. Lands that had been used for the common good were seized and turned into private property that went to the victor. Remember that for Native Peoples, land is held in stewardship, in trust for everyone. Native elder Dolly Lansdown, of the World Council of Churches says, “The earth is the foundation of life from which we flow. It is our life.”

With the view that Mother Earth belonged to everyone and therefore could not be "owned," the Natives, of course, welcomed the new arrivals and shared the land with them. But the guests suddenly claimed ownership, (one can see how the treaties were later broken).

The land grab was on, and it continues to the present day from the Innu in Labrador whose lands are being invaded by NATO forces to the chain saws of Temagami and British Columbia. As Chief Red Cloud said, They made us many promises, but they kept only one. They promised to take our land and they took it.”

In 1830, for example, the President of the United States was given the power to root out all Indian living east of the Mississippi River. Natives were put on forced westward marches of thousands of miles in winter weather. “The Trail of Tears” is the name of one of these. The death rate was staggering.

Not only was their land taken from them but they also had citizenship conferred upon them without their consent. Remember they had flourishing civilizations with their own religions and languages.

In Canada, the Department of Indian affairs was headed for over 2 decades by a man who said his purpose was to civilize the Indians and make them “productive members of the industrial and mercantile community.” Even in Nova Scotia today, there is a statute, still on the law books, that says that if an Indian scalp is brought to the government, the bearer will receive a reward.

McKenna: What would be another historical consequence?

Taylor: The invisibility of Native Peoples throughout the Americas. When Canadians talk about whether Quebec should be described as a “distinct society” in the Meech Lake Accord, they do so without having once considered if the phrase might apply to Native People a people with not only their own language and culture, but their own religion, spiritual values, ceremonies, social structures and so on.

Similarly, when the CBC cancels its only native run radio programme on native issues and replaces it with pop music, the general population is encouraged to think that there are no native issues. Every time we use the term “Latin America”, we consign Native Peoples to being European.

Native concerns continue to be marginalized. Recently, for example, the premiers of Ontario and Manitoba signed a huge electric power agreement that affects tribal lands and peoples. Local tribal leaders were not consulted. Chief Dunstand of the Lytton band recently said, “Stop treating us as if we are invisible.”

McKenna: How is Columbus' landing related to the advent of African slavery in the Americas?

Taylor: Well, having almost totally wiped out the Native population, the Europeans, in their lust to extract natural resources, had to find a new pool of slave labour. Africa provided them with just such a source.

McKenna: Could you say something about the nature and extent of the official anniversary celebrations.

Taylor: The initiative for the celebrations originated with Spain. The major participants are countries of Europe and Central and South America. But other countries Japan, Israel, and the U. S. are involved as well.

The official celebrations are big business. Billions of dollars will be spent. Spain, for example, is spending $3. 5 billion for three events in 1992- a World's Fair, the Olympic Games in Barcelona and the promotion of Madrid as “the cultural city of Europe.” The Spanish government is using this anniversary to promote a number of national goals. Chief among these is the enhancement of it's political and economic standing in international and European affairs. Spain is also using the anniversary to advance its goal of becoming the primary link between European interests and the nations of South and Central America. Shades of 1492!

The many celebrations in various countries will be largely Eurocentric in nature. There is, for example, a plan to recreate Columbus' voyage in replicas of the three ships he used.

McKenna: Is Canada involved in the official celebrations?

Taylor: You judge. We're spending $40million to build a Canadian pavilion in Seville- the city where those first five hundred Indians died in slavery. Seville is to be the site of Spain's 1992 World's Fair. Is this how you want your tax dollars spent?

McKenna: Could you outline the goals and activities of the efforts to resist or to counter the official celebrations?

Taylor: A primary goal is to tell the real story of the conquest. We need to counterbalance the dis-information our history books have given us and the mythology that is being perpetuated by the official committees.

1992 will also be an occasion will be an excellent opportunity for both Native People and Black People to tell the story of what really happened as they draw upon their history and cultural identity. Cultural and artistic events are also being organized to celebrate these cultures.

1992 will also be an occasion to address specific concerns such as land claims self-government, racism, justice and education. The condemnation of current human rights violations of aboriginal peoples will certainly be a priority; especially when you think of human rights struggle in Labrador, Brazil or elsewhere in the Americas. For Canada's Native peoples, certainly the issues of land claims and self government will be high on the agenda.

As a way of expressing an overall goal for 1992, let me read to you from a document presented by the United Indigenous Delegation of Guatemala to the UN Working group on Indigenous Peoples: “The aspiration of the indigenous people of our America is that the 500th anniversary mark the end of 500 years of oppression and discrimination, and the beginning of a process of constructing conditions for the real historical encounter of two cultures, based on equality, mutual respect, peace and cooperation for independent development.”

McKenna: Can you share a bit about the resistance efforts here in Canada?

Taylor: The movement is just beginning to pick up momentum in Canada. Native organizations, both local and national, have already begun to organize. Some educational and cultural events have already taken place and more are being planned.

There is no national network or coalition in place at this point. But more and more people are beginning to realize that we must begin organizing now; 1992 will be too late to start.

One Toronto based organization is aiming to network with other Canadian organizations around the issue: The Toronah Support Group of the 500 years of Resistance and Survival Campaign. (Address: P. O. Box 591, Station A, Toronto, Onatrio, M5W 1E4. phone: (416) 538-8889). The Toronah Support Group is working in connection with the “Self-Discovery of America Campaign” which is based in many countries of South and Central America.

Some church organizations are getting involved at this point. In 1986, the United Church of Canada published “An Apology to Native Congregations.” Hopefully, other mainline churches will follow suit. Such an action would certainly be appropriate for the Catholics and the Anglicans since both churches played a central role in early missionary efforts in Canada.

For people across Canada who want to get involved in this issue but don't know how or where to begin, I would make the following suggestions. Contact local church offices, Third World Solidarity groups, cross-cultural learner centres or native organizations. Or try writing the national offices of your denomination.
Finally, there are two very specific things most of us can consider. Both are related to consciousness-raising. First, let's raise our own. Secondly, help those around us.

Recently, the Rev. Frances Combs, a United Church minister, gave a sermon on the injustices being perpetuated toward Native Peoples; and in her conclusion she pointed out that her church's apology was a good start, but now “we ourselves need to change, “ she said.

One change, I would suggest, is for us to stop referring to the Native Peoples of South and Central America as “Latin Americans.” They are not “Latins”: they were subjugated by Latins, and to the extent that we call them Latin Americans, we contribute to their invisibility. With that under our belt, we can begin challenging the inappropriate use of that phrase whenever we meet it, but particularly with editors of newspapers, talk show hosts and friends. Having raised our own consciousness we can with gentleness and accuracy begin raising the awareness of those around us.

As the Christophers have taught us, it's better to light one small candle than to curse the darkness.

And letters to the Prime Minister (with a copy to your MP). We need to raise the issue of economic priorities for our country at a time when we are being told to tighten our belts. The government, for example, has put a cap on expenditures for educational costs for Native Peoples, but $40 million can be found to build a pavilion in Spain as that government tries to capitalize on a holocaust denied.

McKenna: A final word?

Taylor: For people interested in raising consciousness in their local areas a packet of ideas, form letters and further information and facts are available for $3. from: Kai Visionworks, Box 5490, Station A, Toronto, Ontario, M5W 1N7.


See also:
Manifest Destiny: A Native Perspective on 1992 - 1992 will be a year of mourning for North American Indians; a mourning for the fragmentation and loss of our traditional way of life. (CX5204)
1992: A White Christian Perspective - (CX5203).
1992: Theology of Self-Discovery Offers Hope - (CX5205).


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