Christopher Columbus has fallen out of fashion. He’s a convenient person to blame for the downfall of American Indians. In fact, Columbus’s treatment of Indians was terrible by our standards, but he was no worse than other Europeans of his time. By the standards that time, what he did was to be expected.
Columbus certainly bears responsibility for his own actions, but it is unfair to hang on him culpability for everything thereafter done by Europeans in the Americas. If Columbus and all of his ships had been lost at sea, sooner or later, some other European would have come across, and the end result for the American Indians would have been much the same. What happened to American Indians was an unspeakable tragedy. But it’s essentially the same thing that’s happened every time a less advanced technologically society has come in contact with a more technologically advanced one.
Before Europeans, American Indians did not live in a state of harmony and bliss. The strong still dominated the weak. For other examples, see what the Aztecs and Incas did to their neighbors. The Comanche and Kiowa dominated the southern plains, as the Sioux and Cheyenne did the northern ones.
Certainly, we must recognize the atrocities committed by Europeans, but I would hope that, while we do so, we do not lose sight of the traditional narrative. That narrative also contains truth. People deride use of the word discovery in connection with Columbus, saying the Americas had already been found by those living here. True enough, but the discovery was real from the perspective of Europeans. The rest of the world did not know about the Americas. If the Incas had sent boats across to Africa and back, they would have reported that they had “discovered” Africa, despite the people already living there.
So, here’s the traditional Columbus Day poem:
In fourteen hundred ninety-two
Columbus sailed the ocean blue.
He had three ships and left from Spain;
He sailed through sunshine, wind and rain.
He sailed by night; he sailed by day;
He used the stars to find his way.
A compass also helped him know
How to find the way to go.
Ninety sailors were on board;
Some men worked while others snored.
Then the workers went to sleep;
And others watched the ocean deep.
Day after day they looked for land;
They dreamed of trees and rocks and sand.
October 12 their dream came true,
You never saw a happier crew!
“Indians! Indians!” Columbus cried;
His heart was filled with joyful pride.
But “India” the land was not;
It was the Bahamas, and it was hot.
The Arakawa natives were very nice;
They gave the sailors food and spice.
Columbus sailed on to find some gold
To bring back home, as he’d been told.
He made the trip again and again,
Trading gold to bring to Spain.
The first American? No, not quite.
But Columbus was brave, and he was bright.