Columbus Day: A Day to Remember Genocide?

Is Columbus Day one to celebrate? Commemorate perhaps. Soberly reflect on, yes.

But celebrate? I’m not so sure.

That has been highlighted memorably by the Oatmeal in a cartoon that has gone viral on Social Media. If you read only one thing today, make sure it’s that one.


The question, though, remains: even though some awful things happened in the Americas, at the hands of Columbus and many others, can it justifiably be labeled genocide?

Some say: NO. Germs were at fault. Disease killed major portions of the native population. This is a valid point, and one that is highlighted in depth in Jared Diamond’s classic: Guns, Germs and Steel. Yet even Diamond is not afraid to use the word ‘genocide’ in his description of what transpired in the Americas.

      RELATED: Huffington Post: For Love of God and Country

Yet saying disease was involved doesn’t get anyone off the hook, according to James Loewen: “Most diseases, for instance, came from animals that were domesticated by Europeans. Cowpox from cows led to smallpox, which was later “spread through gifts of blankets by infected Europeans.”

And Loewen notes we ought to remember this, as well as the responses to it, theologically and ideologically motivated as they were:

“Why is it important to mention the plague? Quite simply, it reinforced European ethnocentrism and hardly produced a “friendly” relationship between the Natives and Europeans. To most of the Pilgrims and Europeans, the Natives were heathens, savages, and demonic. Upon seeing thousands of dead Natives, the Governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Winthrop, called the plague “miraculous.” In 1634, he wrote to a friend in England: ‘But for the natives in these parts, God hath so pursued them, as for 300 miles space the greatest part of them are swept away by the small pox which still continues among them. So as God hath thereby cleared our title to this place.'”

Those saying no will also note that there were many complex factors in play, and there was no large, overarching plan for systematic destruction of any people group. True. I’ve spent part of the day reading: Missionary Conquest: The Gospel and Native American Cultural Genocide by George Tinker, an American Indian theologian and scholar. He notes “that the conscious intent to destroy a people is not necessary for an act to be genocidal or for it to succeed in destroying. What I call cultural genocide functions at times as conscious intent, but at other times as such a systemic level that it may be largely subliminal, In such cases, the good intent of some may be so mired in unrecognized systemic structures that they even remain unaware of the destruction that results from those good intentions.”

Tinker uses the term ‘cultural genocide’: “the effective destruction of a people by systematically or systemically (intentionally or unintentionally in order to achieve other goals) destroying, eroding, or undermining the integrity of the culture and system of values that defines a people and gives them life.”

He notes that cultural genocide is more subtle than overt military extermination, yet it is no less devastating to a people.


Tinker notes that this involves several factors:

“First of all, it involves the destruction of those cultural structures of existence that give a people a sense of holistic and communal integrity. It does this by limiting a people’s freedom to practice their culture and to live out their lives in culturally appropriate pattersn. It effectively destroys a people by eroding both their self-esteem and the interrelationships that bind them together as a community. In North American mission history, cultural genoicde almost always involved an attack on the spiritual foundations of a people’s unity by denying the existing ceremonial and mythological sense of a community in relationship to the Sacred Other. Finally, it erodes a people’s self-image as a whole by attacking or belittling every aspect of native culture.”

This cultural genocide includes political, economic, religious, and social aspects.

He notes that the treaties signed by the United States with Indian nations were indeed a form of political genocide. They were invariably forced on Indian peoples who were offered little choice or alternative. And to make matters (much) worse, there was a consistent failure of the United States to even keep those (already one-sided) treaties. Sadly, often church and denominational leaders and missionaries were enlisted to help enforce such policies.

Economic aspects of genocide, according to Tinker, involve using or allowing the economic systems, always with political and even military support, to manipulate and exploit another culturally discrete entity that is both politically and economically weaker. The results can range from enslavement and the direct exploitation of labor to the pillaging of natural economic resources that leaves a people unable to sustain themselves. There are numerous examples.

Religious aspects of genocide involve the overt attempt to destroy the spiritual solidarity of a people. This can be done by outlawing ceremonial forms, such as the 1890 legislation that outlawed several traditional dances, and making them punishable crimes. Further, many missionaries, emboldened by their sense of political and economic superiority, used preaching the the promised bliss of conversion to denounce or belittle native forms of prayer and argue their own spiritual superiority. Moreover, writers Tinker, they used their influence to promote the 1890 legislation limiting freedom of religion for Indian peoples and “establishing” Christianity.

In the end, Tinker notes “that Native American peoples were also subjected to genocide should be self-evident, although it was rarely articulated as policy.”

History is complex, and there are no easy answers, but how we tell history matters, as I wrote in an earlier piece for the Huffington Post.

I especially appreciate Howard Zinn’s approach in A People’s History of the United States:

“What Columbus did to the Arawaks of the Bahamas, Cortes did to the Aztecs of Mexico, Pizarro to the Incas of Peru, and the English settlers of Virginia and Massachusetts to the Powhatans and the Pequots.

The treatment of heroes (Columbus) and their victims (the Arawaks)–the quiet acceptance of conquest and murder in the name of progress-is only one aspect of a certain approach to history, in which the past is told from the point of view of governments, conquerors, diplomats, leaders. It is as if they, like Columbus, deserve universal acceptance, as if they-the Founding Fathers, Jackson, Lincoln, Wilson, Roosevelt, Kennedy, the leading members of Congress, the famous Justices of the Supreme Court-represent the nation as a whole.

My viewpoint, in telling the history of the United States, is different: that we must not accept the memory of states as our own. Nations are not communities and never have been. The history of any country, presented as the history of a family, conceals fierce conflicts of interest (sometimes exploding, most often repressed) between conquerors and conquered, masters and slaves, capitalists and workers, dominators and dominated in race and sex. And in such a world of conflict, a world of victims and executioners, it is the job of thinking people, as Albert Camus suggested, not to be on the side of the executioners.”

In 1948, coming out of the second World War, the United Nations Genocide Convention began the process of broadening our understanding of genocide as including “any of several kinds of acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, as such.”

What do you think? Can we use this term when speaking of the Western settlement of the Americas?


3 thoughts on “Columbus Day: A Day to Remember Genocide?

  1. On the other hand it is second nature for people to celebrate their great warriors.

    We often forget that white people hold no monopoly on violence. Think of Genghis Khan. He laid low much of Asia from the sea of Japan to Asia Minor, and Mongol armies made it to the borders of Western Europe as well. The Mongols crushed the Islamic Empire, and they were known to hate farmers so much that one leader even suggested they burn all the villages and farmland in China to convert it into pasture for their horses. This idea was nixed when it was decided they would lose more in tax revenue than they would gain in grazing territory.

    Genghis Khan is celebrated as a hero to this day in Mongolia. Not only that – I know one of the lead men around Gandhi in the Indian independence movie used Genghis Khan as an example of a “Great Asian”.

    Again – it is quite natural for whites to celebrate Columbus.


  2. Thanks for this thoughtful look at this. It’s too easy to oversimply with demonization, or to write it all with appeals to cultural relativity.

    The Winthrop quote is chilling.


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