[Religious Socialism published this essay last year, and we're pleased to republish it in an updated format this year.]
By Isabelle Gunning
Across the United States, on the second Monday of this month, October 9, many people will “celebrate” Columbus Day. Fortunately, increasing numbers of people, cities, and states have replaced Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day. This year, we, especially those of us of faith and on the Left, must honor Indigenous Peoples’ Day by calling for more than a replacement holiday; we must demand action to reject the religious edicts that legitimated colonization and to support reparations for Indigenous people for the harm caused by Christopher Columbus and other colonizers.
The commemoration of Indigenous Peoples’ Day represents a shift to replace a day that honors a man who inflicted enslavement, rape, and murder on Indigenous peoples for profit with one honoring of the very peoples he so devastated. This day provides another opportunity to tell the true story of Columbus. We can spotlight Columbus’s own descriptions of his first encounter with the Taino, a group of Arawak people. In a letter to his sponsors, the monarchs of Spain, he writes,
There I found very many islands, filled with innumerable people, and I have taken possession of them all for their Highnesses, done by proclamation and with the royal standard unfurled, and no opposition was offered to me.
We can lift up the eyewitness account of the Spanish bishop Bartolome de las Casas on how Columbus (and other European colonizers) “governed” the people already on the land:
What we committed in the Indies stands out among the most unpardonable offense ever committed against God and mankind and this trade [in American Indian slaves] as one of the most unjust, evil and cruel among them.
People of faith—especially Christian—and on the Left must ourselves feel repentant on Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Columbus and other European colonizers who invaded, devastated and stole from the people they “discovered” were able to justify their actions through religion and law. They invoked the “Doctrine of Discovery” which was created by a series of papal bulls that decreed that European or Catholic nations were entitled to seize the lands of non- Christians, conquer them, and convert them to Christianity. These declarations by several popes blessed colonization and bound it to Christianity. In one such bull demarcating which lands “belonged” to Spain and which to Portugal, Pope Alexander VI stated
that in our times especially the Catholic faith and the Christian religion be exalted and be everywhere increased and spread, that the health of souls be cared for and that barbarous nations be overthrown and brought to the faith itself.
These decrees solidified the legal idea of terra nullius, “empty land,” that allowed Europeans to ignore the rights of non-Christian people already owning and occupying land and to steal that land from them. This doctrine was part of U.S.law as articulated by Chief Justice John Marshall in Johnson v. M’Intosh, an 1823 Supreme Court decision that found that Native Americans had no rights to land ownership. This decision has never been overruled.
Some Christian denominations have denounced the doctrine: The General Convention of the Episcopal Church; The Unitarian Universalist Association; The United Church of Christ; The Christian Reformed Church; The Presbyterian Church (USA); and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
Indigenous peoples have resisted the doctrine since its inception and continue to demand its revocation. In 2014 Ruth Hopkins, a tribal attorney and former judge wrote to Pope Francis to ask him to revoke the most significant of the papal bulls, the Inter caetera of 1493. And in 2016, some 524 clergy aligned with their Indigenous siblings as part of the Dakota Access Pipeline protest and publicly burned copies of the inter caetera.
The movement for the revocation of the doctrine has been building for years. Success may be near. In April 2022, Pope Francis met with delegations from Canada’s First Nations, Inuit, and Metis peoples at the Vatican and stated “For the deplorable conduct of those members of the Catholic Church, I ask for God’s forgiveness and want to say to you with all my heart: I am very sorry.” (Then in July of last year, the pope went to Canada on an apology tour for the devastation wrought by the practice of kidnapping Native children from their families and placing them in residential schools where children were starved, beaten, and prevented from speaking their language and practicing their faith. It was, as Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission called it, “cultural genocide.” Pope Francis described the abuse of these Indigenous children as “a deplorable evil” and “disastrous error.”
Now the pope needs to complete his penance and move from public apologies to formal revocation of all the papal bulls that sanctioned and supported this “deplorable evil.” He and the Catholic Church need to continue that penance by providing practical and financial reparations for the damage that was and continues to be done to Indigenous peoples in the Americas. This is what we need to truly honor Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
[Note from RS: for further information to deepen our understanding of what Indigenous Peoples' Day should and could represent, consider the study "Whose History Matters? Students Can Name Columbus, But Most Have Never Heard Of The Taino People," by Bill Bigelow, and the essay "What Every Non-Indian Needs to Know about Myth of Indigenous People in the United States," by Maxine Philips.]
Isabelle Gunning is a law professor in Los Angeles, California. She is licensed as a practitioner/spiritual counselor by her home church, the Agape International Spiritual Center. She is a member of DSA-LA.
Image credit: Jourdan Bennett-Begaye, ICT