Columbus’ Discovery

Sherri Mitchell

Sherri Mitchell

Guest Commentary

Editor’s Note: This guest commentary was originally published on October 10, 2016 on Native News Online.

“Columbus discovered America like a meteorite discovered the dinosaurs.”

–Matthew Inman

There is no shortage of opinions regarding Columbus Day. It has been the cause of lengthy and heated debate for decades. Opponents of Columbus Day believe that the celebration of Columbus’ discovery memorializes a reprehensible history of entitlement, conquest and genocide. Proponents claim that the day is not set aside to honor the specific actions of one man, but to celebrate the triumph of discovery itself. If this is true, perhaps it would be beneficial for us to take a serious look at the principles of discovery that Columbus was operating under when he arrived in the new world.

The principles of “discovery” come out of the Roman Catholic Church. In 1452, Pope Nicholas V declared war on all non-Christians. He provided King Alfonso of Portugal a papal bull known as Romanus Pontifex. In this papal bull, Nicholas directed King Alfonso to “capture, vanquish, and subdue the saracens, pagans, and all other enemies of Christ,” to “put them into perpetual slavery,” and “to take all their possessions and property.” Pope Nicholas claimed that those who were not Christian did not have the right to be viewed as human beings. To emphasize this point, Pope Nicholas also issued the papal bull Dum Diversas, which legalized slavery as an act of a just war. Under the authority of these two papal bulls, King Alfonso traveled up and down the western coast of Africa claiming all the lands that he discovered, and enslaving the people. This gave rise to a monumental expansion in the African slave trade, which followed Columbus to this country.

Forty years after King Alfonso pillaged the West African coastline, Columbus set off to find Asia. By that time, a well-known tradition of Christian “discovery” had been established in Europe. This gave Columbus the express authority to take possession of any lands that he discovered that were not already under Christian rule. Following his accidental discovery of the Americas, Columbus returned to Europe where Pope Alexander VI ratified Spain’s claim to the lands that he had discovered, by issuing the papal bull Inter Cetera. Inter Cetera granted Spain the right to officially conquer the lands that Columbus had discovered during his 1492 voyage. Thus, acting under the authority of the Catholic Church, Columbus returned to the Americas where he engaged in heinous acts of genocide, conquest and the brutal colonization of the indigenous peoples. As time went on, the authority granted under these papal bulls became known as the Doctrine of Discovery.

Armed with this understanding of the origins of discovery, we can now review the history of Columbus Day. The first major Columbus Day celebration occurred in 1892. In 1891, President Benjamin Harrison called for a day of national celebration to commemorate Columbus’ famed voyage. He planned the event for the following year to honor the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ arrival in the Americas. Harrison declared that it would be a day to celebrate four centuries of success and to reinforce civic pride in the nation. When I read about the first Columbus Day celebration I found a great deal of nationalistic pride and a strong nod toward the hearty frontier spirit that leads to the discovery of new lands. What I didn’t find was any correlation to contemporary events that formed the historical context for the coordination of that initial celebratory event. However, there was an event that occurred during that time period that harkened back to the days of Columbus. In December of 1890 the Wounded Knee Massacre took place. There, hundreds of Sioux were slaughtered (mostly women and children) by the U.S. military, while performing a spiritual ceremony known as the Ghost Dance. Harrison announced his plan to celebrate Columbus just a few short months after this atrocity had taken place.

The Sioux were certainly not operating under Christian rule while performing their ceremony. But, hadn’t we moved beyond the edicts of those papal bulls? Were we still operating under the edict that all non-Christian peoples be vanquished? Hadn’t the Constitution of the United States declared a clear separation between church and state, making the archaic and barbarous traditions of the Doctrine of Discovery a thing of the Past?

Apparently, we had not moved beyond these archaic practices. In fact, one year later, in 1893, the United States officially adopted the Doctrine of Discovery into its legal canon. In the now infamous case, Johnson v. McIntosh, Chief Justice John Marshall used the authority granted through the Doctrine of Discovery to justify the taking of territory owned by Native Americans. Nearly 100 years after the drafting of the Constitution, the United States’ most sacred legal document, the highest court in the land chose to discard the established law and turned to a religious doctrine that was based on archaic principles of discovery. Sadly, this same Doctrine still provides the foundation for Federal Indian Law today. The impacts of discovery across the globe have been devastating. They include: wide scale slaughter; forced removal of the indigenous peoples; brutal attempts at assimilation; the taking of children; slavery; starvation; medical experimentation; involuntary sterilization, and; centuries of forced poverty. Is this something that we should celebrate?

In 1937, President Franklin D. Roosevelt made Columbus Day a national holiday. This was largely the result of intense lobbying by the Catholic Fraternal organization, Knights of Columbus.

Since that time, there has been heated debate surrounding the holiday. Interestingly, when you engage in actual conversation over the actions of Columbus, there seems to be very little debate regarding the atrocities that he committed. Rather, the debate tends to be centered on how we should view the act of discovery itself; is it an act of terrorism or heroism? The unfortunate truth is that many have simply come to accept that with conquest comes carnage, and that destruction of place, loss of life and departure from humanity is an acceptable price to pay for the discovery of new lands. In fact, these principles of discovery seem to have become part of the social value structure of this country. One commentator even stated that the goal of those who oppose Columbus Day is to denigrate the values of western civilization. I found this particular comment to be quite telling. Shouldn’t the goals of a just society include the denigration of values that are attached to genocide, conquest, domination and slavery? America claims to be a just society, yet it continues to instruct its youth to emulate the horrific history of conquest that brought Columbus to the Americas. By doing so, it reinforces a set of values that includes the denigration of human life. Every year this country sanctions the use of violence, by celebrating the history of conquest. Every year a new generation of children is discovering that the values attached to that conquest are honored by this society. To me, that’s a tragedy.

On a more positive note, recently I had the good fortune to witness a very different type of discovery. In my community we had an event called A Celebration of Stories. Native storytellers from several different tribal communities all came together to share stories with the children. As the children listened to these stories they discovered certain truths about the values that our people hold. Through these stories, they discovered the value of each human life; they discovered the importance of living harmlessly upon the earth; they discovered the destructive force of holding on to anger, and; they discovered the importance of being kind. In this commentator’s humble opinion, these are the values that each new generation should be led to discover. If we can lead our children to this type of discovery, then we will truly have something to celebrate.

Sherri Mitchell is citizen of the Penobscot Indian Nation. She is an Indigenous rights attorney, writer and teacher. She is the author of “Sacred Instructions.” You can follow her work on Facebook at: or on twitter @sacred411

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