Why bother addressing the question the day after his day? Or after Indigenous People’s Day? Why bother? Why bother understanding the story? Or ourselves for that matter. After all, it’s history. Shouldn’t our history, our stories, remain in the past.
It turns out, our stories are never truly in the past. And the question bothers us a great deal. We don’t always know why, but it does.
Guilt or being made to feel guilty is unproductive, but that should not stop us from trying to grasp where we came from and how certain stories, or narratives, have come to define our understanding of history.
In truth, the story is so much more complex and alive. And history, like our stories, reveal a great deal about the human condition. About us. Story, history, fiction, narrative, myth. They are entwined within the meaning of being human. Our stories help frame our collective experience and memories and our shared values.
But what happens when our myths no longer reflect our professed values?
So much of our concepts about the rule of law, international law, immigration language, the politics of genocide, and power are entangled in the myths we have created to soften the truth of the invasion and conquest of the New World. A conquest in which most of Europe had a hand. The discovery by swashbluckling adventurers and explorers and the planting of hapless innocent colonists on virgin territory, terra nullus, has been believed for so long that it is difficult to imagine a different story. Even one that is closer to actual events.
When people object to the term discover or discovery, there is a reason beyond the use of the mere word. The Doctrine of Discovery was and is still the law of the land. It was and is the law of colonial expansion. It remains the narrative that envelops meaning in our institutions. We are entangled within everything it signifies. Unraveling it is the same as pulling all the threads that bind us to the rest of the world.
History is a spider web. We imagine it and teach it as a linear climb up the ladder of progress. There is nothing linear about it. To pull one string is to pluck at all the others.
As a writer and a student of history (they are not mutually exclusive,) I have spent years trying to understand this complex narrative. Trying to understand the strong currents of sorrow that lived silently but flowed deeply within my family. The same one that has torn and continues to tear my family apart.
It is the reason I have decided to tell this story. When my dad was killed, it was as if everything that held a closely guarded secret came tumbling down. Of course, we all knew there was something. We even knew that something might have something to do with being Winnebago or Ho-Chunk. But the story was that was ancient history. But as every good historian knows, we are never truly removed from the past or even how we tell about that past.
In fact, the greatest weapon in the arsenal of homo sapiens over all other hominids was and is its ability to foster collaboration and unification through the telling of stories. Through the art of fiction. The same weapon that unifies homo sapiens is also the weapon that can destroy it.
Are we mindful of our stories? Have they served a unifying power that strayed from stated values? When our principles evolve, should we cling to old narratives or do we redefine our stories and more closely align them to our ideals? Is self-reflection ever a wasted effort?
As a suspense thriller writer and a survivor of both systemic as well as more obvious violence, I, like others, continue to endeavor to wrap my mind around that of psychopaths. Often, they have no control over their genetics, the structures of their brains, or even the environment in which their psychopathic hearts have been shaped. It turns out free will may be less an immutable law than some of our spiritual traditions have taught us. After all, neurological understanding is an ongoing process. But that is not to say that we need to wholly embrace the psychopaths amongst us or even their impact upon our society. And believe me, they are often in positions of power that we collectively sanction. And I am not being specific because it is a non-specific issue.
But here is a little truth with which we mortals struggle: Violence has always played a role in human social relations. Conflict can unite as much as divide. Violence creates as much unity as it does disharmony. Ritualized brutality can engender feelings of safety and stability. Our arms race and our overflowing prisons should be proof enough of this maxim. The sheer size and strength of our military industrial complex is more about the systemic violence of power than it is of the common good. It unifies and tears us asunder.
Our stories, religions, beliefs, ideas, and memories that are imbued with theories of love become transformed by their unifying principles into impulses of bloodthirst.
There are those who would say we should not question them at all. But how can we not when those impulses stray so far from those original values more disposed towards love?
There are no easy answers. Only difficult questions.
Finally, was Columbus a psychopath? Or was he the product of those forces that strayed from stated values of love that were now in the service of bloodthirst? If you ask the Taino of the Caribbean the answer would be unnerving. Of course, finding a Taino is impossible. Columbus and his men dispatched them to early graves after profound suffering.
But can we blame Columbus when he was just the product of his time? The Spanish, having repulsed the Moors and all other nonbelievers including the Jews, were hellbent on unifying Christian power under their tutelage. The Pope was all too happy to oblige. The Doctrine of Discovery was still winding up. The Era of Discovery was justified by the papal bulls that gave it authority (albeit strictly Christian), the Dum Diversas 1492 (authorizing slavery,) Romanus Pontifex 1494(Doctrine of Discovery,) and Inter Caetera 1493.
A papal bull in those years was the law and to this day remain a foundation of local and international law. And it is impossible to imagine the invasion and conquest with all the violence inferred without first understanding the power of the law. Hitler understood this when he first demanded the passing of the Enabling Act.
It is also impossible to imagine the authority towards the slaving impulse without also understanding those laws. Perhaps disempowered labor is one of the oldest civilizing impulses in our history. 10,000 years since the Agricultural Revolution and we still struggle with labor issues.
That might be something we want to think about as a society as we move towards greater labor surveillance and quantification. Imagining a modern day pregnant woman confined to one pee break by an AI-enhanced robot does not stray too far in imagination from an enslaved Taino working mercilessly under the hot sun for the gold empire in which Columbus believed so vehemently. And it’s even less of a distance to imagine a slave from the West Coast of Africa working in the cotton fields from sunup to sundown. We’ve just shifted our semantics.
But here’s part of the problem. Trust me. I’m not political. I long ago eschewed myself of allegiance to either party in my own country. But Cory Booker and other voices would have us believe that slavery is the original sin. Something tells me, it is more likely that of murder. Mass murder. But, first, I am not a fan of such guilt informed language and I think it clouds rather than informs the issue of reparations. Second, is it truly the first and foremost transgression of stated values? Third, it erases the memory of the original inhabitants and extinguishes not just their rights to the land, but also their inalienable right to life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness and, by inference, the right to help construct a narrative that is more reflective of shared values. There can be no radical hope without truth.
A friend of mine likes to remind me that the squeaky wheel gets the oil. 14.6 percent of the population will always matter more than 2 percent. But is that part of our shared value? And how did one population come to represent only 2 percent of the total population? Part of the answer lies in the politics of genocide. There’s a fairly weighted word. But the creator of the term, Lemkin, was an intent man and he understood the gravity of an ancient human problem. His version of the term was “disintegration of the political and social institutions, of culture, language, national feelings, religion, and the economic conditions of national groups, and the destruction of personal security, liberty, health, dignity, and even the lives of the individuals belonging to such groups.” It is no wonder that the United States and many of the other participants in the Age of Discovery and Plantation refused for a long time to ratify that part of international law.
In fact, there is considerable academic work on the fact that the conditions, including slavery, were created that eventually led to the proliferation of Old World diseases that decimated the native populations prior to Point Comfort. Contrary to the popular narrative that disease seemed to waft across the land like a miasmic spirit killing millions, voiding the land, and providentially leaving the land unoccupied for the good enterprising souls of Europe and all other welcomed souls from the four corners of the globe, those souls actually and with great agency worked against the health and well-being of those they sought to subjugate and/or eliminate thereby extinguishing any claim to the land.
In fact, prior to the events at Point Comfort in 1619, the English had already burned down houses and stole the food provisions of the native population that resulted in the Starving Time in 1609-10 and almost obliterated the colonists from Jamestown. Several early leaders of Virginia based their actions and beliefs on the “military problem” the natives presented. Long before 1619, the colonists had intended to stay and that meant that the natives needed to go. Upon first arrival, a military solution for a military problem can mean nothing less than invasion, conquest, and just making the pesky problem of inhabitants disappear. That is a part of the narrative that has been left out. That pesky problem continues today and permeates our immigration language.
This is an uncomfortable issue as is slavery. Finding common ground in shared values is the strongest means of finding solutions to those problems and new language for our narratives.
I have always imagined that the most terrifying condition in which to find oneself is the locked-in syndrome. But in some ways, that best describes the state of indigenous narrative. While native communities survive and are resilient, the narrative of their history within the prevailing society remains locked-in.
It is how very recent immigrants can call indigenous migrants from the Guatemala Highlands invaders. It is how Silicon Valley can continue to call for more qualified immigration from elsewhere. It is how people can claim that the few remaining American Indians have too much land (yes, I have had those very words spoken to me.) It is how we can say that a genocide did not occur in this land or any of the other countries within the colonial context.
But I ask: What are our values? Who do we wish to be? What do we want our world to look like? They are simple questions with very complex answers and solutions. But if we want to survive and if we want a world for our children to inherit, we have to be willing to search for the narrative to those questions.
Those questions and their answers are so much bigger than Columbus. In making him our scapegoat, we lessen our responsibility for finding those solutions. By making him our hero, we accept and glorify the expression of the antithesis of our stated values.
If you want an answer to the question, I do believe he was a psychopath undeserving of a special hero’s day. There were plenty of people who found his actions reprehensible. Bartolome de Las Casas (1484-1566) was the first in a long line of those who wrestled with the conscience of their culture.
They are a reminder that seeking our integrity is a forever effort to find our better selves that often requires swimming against the tidal forces of conformity. But I suggest that taking that swim means the survival of our species and all other species in this world.
And it is sort of a glorious world. One worth swimming for.
.” Raphael Lemkin, Axis Rule in Occupied Europe: Laws of Occupation , Analysis of Government, Proposals for Redress (Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1944), p. 79.