Part 2 - FORGIVING COLUMBUS: Can a 500 year-old wound be healed? (revised from Sacred Fire Magazine,
With Thanksgiving approaching Part 2 speaks about how I and we, as a people, need to forgive and bring home the importance of healing the wounds of the past. As we witness today, with ancestral wounds continuing to fester, peace is impossible. Thanksgiving is a time to set aside all forms of malcontent and give gratitude for our lucky stars, and of course, the basics of life. We can learn ancestral wisdom from the Original People of this land. Thanksgiving has European roots with the glad rituals of harvest time but we learned that the pilgrims couldn’t have survived without the help of the First Peoples.
As I prayed in the dark cave with the others, the film had rolled back to when I was a kid in school. The history lessons taught of Christopher Columbus’s heroism as he discovered America making the second Monday of October a national holiday of remembrance prepared us for the pilgrim landing at Plymouth Rock. I learned that Thanksgiving became a national holiday to honor these pilgrims, our forefathers, and their sacrifice that made it possible for us to be here today. Little did I know the real history?
I was born a white child on the Flathead Salish Kootenai Indian Reservation in Montana. Being raised there left me in pieces. At eight I sat in my second grade class looking at the color of my skin; it was not brown like my classmates’ skin. I knew that we had done something very wrong. My life’s purpose has been to make right out of wrong for my Indigenous and non-Indigenous brothers and sisters. I remember that first awareness so clearly and I became inconsolably self-conscious for the rest of my life. I now see that I had to experience the hatred and affliction we — myself and the Indians — suffered living there, marginalized, in poverty, while drugs and alcohol were our escape and addiction. I had to know the pain of being a minority and the need to rise out of oppression and face the truth of the holocaust. I had to awaken for my purpose in life. I could not afford to dillydally in the American Dream.
When I rolled out of there at 17, I had a lot of forgiveness to do. I was angry. Angry with my family, my teachers, everyone. But probably not any angrier than anyone else who grew up there. My early years were peaceful but by the 70’s the American Indian Movement (AIM) was catching on like wildfire. It was as though Wounded Knee in the Dakotas (1973) woke everyone out of a trance. People began to awaken to what they had lost. AIM brought fear to our lives each day. We were stalked, called vicious names, spat on, beaten up. My eldest brother suffered gang violence and humiliation. I would be called out to fight girls. My mother gave me a sock filled with rocks I hid in my pocket to use to defend myself. My brothers and I took our rage out on each other. We were ineffectual elsewhere.
My parents and grandparents farmed this land since the 40’s. They looked to the “American Dream” for their salvation, while I searched for spiritual connection by way of the Earth. I was saved, not through my Christian upbringing but by the voice of the hawk and the dreams of the Bear Clan that watched over me and protected me. I looked to the sacred mountains for guidance and waited each spring for my familiar Meadow Lark to sing its trill, “My song”. My father tried to understand this and my mother was too frightened and worried to see me for whom I was. Some Native elders said I had an Indigenous heart.
In 1095, at the beginning of the Crusades, Pope Urban II issued an edict, the papal bull Terra Nullius, which means empty land, which gave the kings and princes of Europe the right to claim land in non-Christian areas. In 1452 Pope Nicholas V issued the bull Romanus Pontifex, declaring war against all non-Christians throughout the world and authorizing the conquest of their nations and territories.
By the time Christopher Columbus set sail in 1492, this Doctrine of Discovery was well established. It granted Columbus the right to perform a ceremony to “take possession” of all lands he “discovered”. In 1493 Pope Alexander VI issued the bull Inter Cetera, which granted Spain the right to conquer the lands that Columbus had discovered, and all the lands that they would come upon in the future. The Empire was strengthened by the Pope’s wish to convert the natives of these lands to Catholicism. These edicts treated non-Christians as uncivilized and sub-human and therefore without rights to any land or nation. Leaders claimed a God-given right to take control of all lands, justify war, colonize and induce slavery.
Ironically and perhaps even schizophrenically, the United States was founded on freedom from such tyranny. The doctrines that white European people had certain divine rights were nevertheless ingrained in our young nation’s policies and people. The slave trade and the centuries of violence against black people and other races within this melting pot depended on the idea that non-whites were less than human. The theft of Native American lands required a similar justification. Growing up, I felt less than human knowing what I knew, based on what I felt and saw, not what the history books taught me.
In 1823 the Doctrine of Discovery was written into United States law in the Supreme Court case Johnson v. M’Intosh. In this case, the Court ruled that the US held “the ultimate right to the soil." This ruling stripped Native Americans, as well as African Americans, Mexicans and many others in North America and abroad, of all rights to their independence. They lost their lives, liberty and land in the name of United States expansionism. Soon thereafter, the 1830 Indian Removal Act was written as law. The effects of manifest Destiny (another name for the Doctrine of Discovery) continues today as we move toward progress and pushing original peoples around the world out of their homelands and to the brink of extinction. Genocide has not stopped. Isn’t it what we’ve wanted? Isn’t it all in the name of progress, the Great American Dream?
Columbus is an archetypal force. He’s part of us and a contributor to the dream that’s carried forth the hunger and greed. The catastrophic results are evident today. The ritual of forgiveness is necessary to begin a new way of dreaming.
How can the Original Peoples of the land I build my home and community on dance this dance of forgiveness? Native people from the Americas have gathered to dance. Are the Utes being pushed to forgive too soon? This was their land. What needs to happen in this valley and in this State and the Nation for forgiveness to be real?
This morning Philip Whiteman, Jr. of the Cheyenne River Reservation sang the song that “came through my father and my grandfathers [and] was sung by [my ancestor] Sitting Bull, just before the Battle of Little Big Horn”. He talked about the earth paint used on the face of a warrior as a mirror for the enemy. “The warrior would say to the enemy, ‘What you do to me, you do to yourself.’ When soldiers attacked our people, when our people went out with their earth paint and eagle whistles, [they said] what you do to us you do to yourself." He went on to say, “Today we’re still confronted with the same battle that took place in 1972."
His message is loud and clear to me. My mother was born near that battleground. Once, I looked out over the beautiful tawny fields where the fallen peoples’ spirits wander on the land of this massacre and thought, “They can’t rest." And I think that the Ceremony of Forgiveness will heal this eerie reminder of the holocaust and all the many others along the “spine of the Americas”.
Whiteman also said “because of industrial culture, what it’s done to the land and earth that we live in today and how we’ve adopted its lifestyle, we contribute to the destruction of Mother Earth and all living things. Today, I pray that the historical trauma that we face and the insanity that comes along with thinking we own Her, may heal from this sickness. We are all one. We are all Brothers and Sisters and the Creator owns us.”
I think of Jorge Coronado, a Mayan elder who addressed the audience this morning. “I send you a greeting from the Council of Elders of the Yucatan. A dark light penetrated and it destroyed nature. We Indigenous People live in harmony with nature. I sing a song, a prayer to heal the earth. For us, sin is destroying Mother Earth. We Indigenous People all have the same purpose. We can confront darkness not with weapons but with love. In these difficult time that are coming we need to double our prayers."
Dr. Kawan Sangaa “Woody” Morrison, a Haida elder from British Columbia, gave us a perspective on forgiveness, too: “Columbus was an integral part of Prophesy, a test. So, do we continue to mire ourselves in our buckets of misery over this thing, or do we climb out and regain our respective identities of Peoples who live ‘with the land’ rather than ‘off the land’ and, reclaim our natural wisdom—the wisdom that comes with our having lived with this land for over 100,000 years?
“In our minds we have killed Columbus innumerable times…Let’s take care of that Spirit so that it can complete its journey and we can remove ourselves from our bucket of misery, release the weight of five centuries of oppression, and return to our place as natural elements of Mother Earth’s habitat. As mired peoples, we have learned to think in terms of ‘moving ahead’. However, we are going nowhere except where our Spaceship Earth is taking us…much like the fleas fighting over who owns the dog. We need to return ourselves to the ‘River of Time’. The passage of time is like sitting in a river with my back upstream; time flows past.
“Stop looking over our shoulders trying to see our past. It is in front of us for us to be constantly reminded of who we are and what we have become under the influence of the ‘Dark Sun’."
In all fairness I must say that even as far back as Columbus there were religious and political leaders, as well as ordinary citizens, who knew better and worked against racism, colonization and slavery. There’s always light in the darkness. There are always people with open hearts and Indigenous souls that rise in defense of what’s right and good.
To be continued…Part 3 will appear in December just before the Winter Solstice, a time of endings, when we find Forgiveness in our hearts once and for all.