To mark Indigenous People’s Day—or “Columbus Day” if you’re still up for celebrating a greedy, genocidal, racist slaver with a terrible sense of direction—we present a non-footnoted excerpt from the new book “ ‘All the Real Indians Died Off’: and 20 Other Myths About Native Americans” (Beacon Press, 2016).
In this portion of Chapter 3, the authors—historian, educator and American Book Award-winner Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz and journalist, researcher and educator Dina Gilio-Whitaker—skillfully dismantle the historical lies and xenophobic theories that continue to erase the horrific, lasting impact that Columbus and his ilk had on Indigenous peoples in the so-called “New World.” Brace yourself, read and share.
MYTH 3: “Columbus Discovered America”
Old myths die hard, it is said, and few die harder than the Columbus discovery myth. The claim that Columbus discovered America is the original prevarication that laid the foundation for a national mythology at whose center is the deliberate discursive erasure of Indigenous peoples. The statement itself is a misnomer. “America” as it is usually understood refers to the United States of America, but most people understand that in 1492 the United States was still 284 years into the future. The use of the term “America” as a synonym for “United States” also ignores the rest of North America, as well as Central and South America, where countless others refer to themselves as “Americans” (Latin Americans), so the term is far too broad to have any real meaning beyond reference to the Western Hemisphere. If we are to be accurate about a national origin myth of discovery, it would be more appropriate to say that Columbus discovered the Bahamas, Hispaniola, and Cuba.
Except that from an Indigenous viewpoint, he didn’t actually discover anything. Indigenous peoples assert instead (not necessarily humorously) that they discovered Columbus. Not only could Columbus not have discovered a country that didn’t yet exist—or play any actual role in its creation—but he also utterly failed to comprehend, let alone respect, the people he stumbled upon in the mistaken belief that he had arrived in the “East Indies.” He wasn’t the first European to sail to the Americas anyway, and he never even set foot on the continent we know today as North America during any of his four journeys.
He did, however, set into motion a tidal wave of destruction so cataclysmic that many scholars believe it is unparalleled in recorded history. From an Indigenous standpoint, he has been wrongfully venerated. He is widely credited with initiating the transatlantic slave trade and catalyzing a genocide from which Native people are still recovering. The Columbus discovery story can be thought of as the greatest piece of propaganda of the last five centuries.
A growing abundance of scholarship and popular literature in the past few decades has deconstructed the actual history of Cristóbal Colón’s odyssey to the “New World,” unraveling the singular portrayal of Columbus as a hero, much to the chagrin of some conventional scholars. Columbus’s stalwart apologists—while sometimes acknowledging the atrocities and the flaws of the man—nonetheless continue to view history through a lens that presumes the inevitability of modernity (i.e., European superiority) and use the celebratory term “Age of Exploration” for Columbus’s times.
Beginning in colonial times, Columbus was widely lionized as a national hero. In 1906 Colorado became the first state to establish an official holiday in his honor, and in 1937 Columbus Day gained federal status. Then Samuel Eliot Morison penned the two-volume [“]Admiral of the Ocean Sea,[“] based on his own ambitious re-creation of Columbus’s first voyage in a three-masted ship. The book won the Pulitzer Prize for literature in 1943 and earned Morison a reputation as the preeminent scholar on Columbus in the United States. A naval admiral and quintessential American patriot, Morison praised Columbus for “his indomitable will, his superb faith in God and in his own mission as the Christ-bearer to lands beyond the sea.”
With the rise of ethnic studies in the post–civil rights era, scholars began shining light on the darker parts of the Columbus story, particularly in publications such as Howard Zinn’s [“]A People’s History of the United States[“] (1980), Kirkpatrick Sale’s [“]Christopher Columbus and the Conquest of Paradise[“] (1990), David Stannard’s [“]American Holocaust[“] (1992), Jan Carew’s
[“]The Rape of Paradise: Columbus and the Birth of Racism in the Americas[“] (1994), and James Loewen’s [“]Lies My Teacher Told Me[“] (1995). These and other authors drew from primary and secondary sources to reassess Columbus’s legacy, painting a more honest—if disturbing—picture of the historical reality and its consequences. For European settler descendants they may be inconvenient truths, but for the Indigenous peoples of the Americas, with millennia-long memories, Columbus’s arrival is a devastating recent occurrence still viscerally felt. Without attempting to recount all the documentary evidence that exposes Columbus’s inhumanity and the fallout of his intrusions, we’ll highlight those most relevant to Indigenous peoples, most of which derive directly from Columbus’s own logs and other eyewitness accounts, primarily the priest Bartolomé de Las Casas.
Columbus Captured and Enslaved Indigenous Peoples
By the time Columbus made his first journey across the Atlantic, he’d been a slave trader for twelve years under the Portuguese flag, but initially it was gold he was looking for, not slaves. He first made landfall in the Bahamas, where he was greeted by friendly Arawaks who gave Columbus and his men food, water, and gifts. He noticed that they wore small bits of gold jewelry, which would have tragic consequences for the Arawaks. Columbus wrote in his log:
They … brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things, which they exchanged for the glass beads and hawks’ bells. They willingly traded everything they owned… . They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features… . They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron.
Their spears are made of cane… . They would make fine servants. … With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.
“As soon as I arrived in the Indies,” Columbus would later write, “on the first Island which I found, I took some of the natives by force in order that they might learn and might give me information of whatever there is in these parts.”
It was gold Columbus wanted to know about, and as soon as he made landfall he began terrorizing the Indigenous people, taking captives, including women as sex slaves for the men. On his first voyage he took between ten and twenty-five captives back to Europe, seven or eight of whom survived the voyage. By the second voyage, which was outfitted with seventeen heavily armed ships, attack dogs, and more than twelve hundred men, the mission was to acquire not just gold but slaves. During that expedition, fifteen hundred men, women, and children were captured, with five hundred sent back to Europe on ships, two hundred dying on the way. According to Loewen, Columbus is thought to have enslaved five thousand Indigenous peoples throughout his voyaging career to the Americas, more than enslaved by any other individual ever.
Columbus Instigated the Genocide of Indigenous Americans
The small gold ornaments worn by the Arawaks triggered a bloodlust so extreme that the historical record, while clear, is difficult to comprehend. To read the primary sources and still keep in mind Columbus as hero creates cognitive dissonance. On his first journey, Columbus set up a base on the island of Hispaniola (today’s Dominican Republic and Haiti) that he named Fort Navidad. Bartolomé de Las Casas’s father and uncles journeyed with Columbus on his second voyage and wealthy from sharing in the Spanish plunder of Hispaniola, and Bartolomé came to the Americas in 1502 to see the family’s holdings. In a three-volume work titled [“]Historia de las Indias[“] ([“]History of the Indies[“]), which covered the years up to 1520, Las Casas recorded in excruciating detail the fate of the Indigenous peoples, from what he witnessed firsthand. Imagining huge fields of gold, which did not exist, Columbus instituted what later became known as the encomienda system, large estates run on forced labor for the purposes of extracting gold. Las Casas reported that when mining quotas were not met by the Indians
excavating the gold, their hands were cut off and they bled to death. When they attempted to flee, they were hunted down with dogs and killed. So little gold existed in Hispaniola that the island turned into a massive killing field. The Arawaks eventually took to mass suicide and infanticide to escape the cruelty
of the Spaniards. “In two years,” Howard Zinn wrote, “through murder, mutilation, or suicide, half of the 250,000 Indians on Haiti were dead… . By the year 1515, there were perhaps fifty thousand Indians left. By 1550, there were five hundred. A report of the year 1650 shows none of the original Arawaks or their descendants left on the island.”
Indigenous peoples perished by the millions in the first century of European contact throughout the Caribbean and the rest of the Americas, from diseases brought by the Europeans, all stemming from Columbus’s initial voyage. In many cases entire nations were extinguished. Indigenous population density in pre-contact North and South America has been a hotly debated topic among scholars for decades. Alfred Kroeber estimated the number at an extremely conservative 8.4 million, Henry Dobyns put it at 100 million, while Cherokee anthropologist Russell Thornton, known for his study of Native American population history, believes that 75 million is more realistic. Kroeber estimated 900,000 in North America on the low end, Dobyns believed it was 18 million north of Mesoamerica, while
Thornton advanced a more moderate figure of “7+ million.” By 1890, 228,000 American Indians were counted in the United States, a time scholars generally agree was the nadir of the Indigenous population in the country. If we use Thornton’s number, seven million, 228,000 represents a population decline of
roughly 97 percent. As Thornton notes, however, the population decline cannot be attributed merely to disease: “Native American populations were probably reduced not only by the direct and indirect effects of disease but also by direct and indirect effects of wars and genocide, enslavement, removals and relocations, and changes in American Indian societies, cultures, and subsistence patterns accompanying European colonialism.”
In other words, American Indians today can be said to have survived genocide of apocalyptic proportions, more dramatic than any other in recorded history. …
Excerpted from “All the Real Indians Died Off”: And 20 Other Myths About Native Americans by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz and Dina Gilio-Whitaker (Beacon Press, 2016). Reprinted with Permission from Beacon Press.
Co-author Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz grew up in rural Oklahoma, the daughter of a tenant farmer and part-Indian mother. She has been active in the international Indigenous movement for more than four decades and is known for her lifelong commitment to national and international social justice issues. After receiving her Ph.D. in history at the University of California at Los Angeles, she taught in the newly established Native American Studies Program at California State University, Hayward, and helped found the Departments of Ethnic Studies and Women’s Studies. Her 1977 book [“]The Great Sioux Nation [“] was the fundamental document at the first international conference on Indigenous peoples of the Americas, held at the United Nations’ headquarters in Geneva. Dunbar-Ortiz is the author or editor of seven other books, including [“]Roots of Resistance: A History of Land Tenure in New Mexico.[“] Her most recent book, [“]An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States[“] (Beacon Press, 2014) was the 2015 Recipient of the American Book Award and the winner of the 2015 PEN Oakland-Josephine Miles Award for Excellence in Literature. She lives in San Francisco.
Co-author Dina Gilio-Whitaker (Colville Confederated Tribes) is an award-winning journalist and columnist at Indian Country Today Media Network. A writer and researcher in Indigenous studies, she is currently a research associate and associate scholar at the Center for World Indigenous Studies. She lives in San Clemente, CA.