Another Columbus Day has come and drifted into the shadows of time, but it is quite clear in 2013 that the honoring of Christopher Columbus seems to be much more complicated in recent years as many of the Native American peoples harbor deep resentments regarding the European explorer. Yet recently, Columbus Day has been forced to take a backseat to Native American celebrations initiated as a reaction to celebrating Columbus as a discoverer because they would rather view him as the one who initiated the genocide against the indigenous peoples. Definitely it is more complex today than in 1934 when Franklin Roosevelt declared October 12th a federal holiday to honor Columbus.
Many Native Americans today harbor deep resentments of centuries-old endurance of the White Man as he discovered and encroached upon the lands of the Western Hemisphere, and then decimated and dominated the indigenous peoples during the time of colonization and thereafter. However, although such horrors of cruelty and inhumanity are now well documented, a more complete or thorough understanding of this explosive time in human history is not easily obtained. Nevertheless, those who seek the truth seem to be the ones who eventually come to know it.
Regretfully, it is way too late to change the past and undo the disdainful deeds that transpired between people of long ago. But, as people learn these horrible transgressions from the past, is it wise to only focus on the mistakes of the ancestors? If people in 2013 only carry away hatred and vengeful resentment directed towards one culture or another, has any valuable lesson emerged? Is it possible that people would prefer to believe that the historic meeting between Columbus and the indigenous people of the “New World” could have created a world of human harmony despite such diversity of two peoples from two entirely different worlds? Is not humanity confronting similar issues today?
Questions that arise from this moment in time and how Americans or citizens of the world handle these events today involve the essence of whether regurgitating the painful events of the past can help people today understand the Native Americans any more than could the Spaniards centuries ago; or whether regurgitating the painful events of the past can help us move toward or away from the ideal of world harmony. For far too long in history, misinformation, misinterpretation, manifestation of myths, and much misunderstanding has barred the way to an adequate foundation for respect, cooperation, compassion, and trust among peoples of diverse origins with different cultural ways and traditions.
Sadly, throughout the course of history, events which have brought people together in genuine peaceful coexistence are rare indeed, and to expect that these two fundamentally diverse cultures could have carved out some form of humanitarian harmony is somewhat naïve. Although current history texts regarding this historic encounter often portray an impression that most, if not all, of the island natives were docile and peaceful, this is an incomplete picture. Unfortunately, contemporary revisionists imbued with ideological fervor can manipulate common perceptions and sometimes neglect the reality that a diversity of tribes lived on the Caribbean islands when Columbus arrived.
Unfortunately, even Columbus had such an initial perception. However, he made a journal entry at a later time which countered the “all Indians are peaceful” narrative: “Many of the men I have seen have scars on their bodies and when I made signs to them to find out how this happened, they indicated that people from other nearby islands come to San Salvador to capture them… I believe that people from the mainland come here to take them as slaves…” When people try to neatly lump all of the natives into a single category, it is runs counter to reality. In fact, the name of the region is derived from the Carib Indians.
Just as in European or Asian cultures, the meek and peaceful peoples were often dominated by the ones who took advantage of their docile or humble nature. In the same manner, to arrive at a simplistic conclusion that all the indigenous peoples were all the same is an inaccurate appraisal of the overall situation of the Native American peoples in the Caribbean region at the time Columbus bumped into them. The Caribs were the fierce warrior tribe whom the Taino people identified to Columbus as those responsible for killing his sailors and destroying the settlement at La Navidad. If the Caribs viewed the Europeans as a threat to their own dominion, their demeanor was to fight for the islands.
It is not hard to recognize that the Aztecs in Central America and the Incas in South America, prior to the Spanish domination, had achieved an even greater dominance of the weaker, less organized local peoples in their regions than had the Caribs in the islands. So, if people today can get beyond the current narrative which continues to exhume the ghosts of Spanish Conquistadores and cannibalistic Caribs, it may be possible to get to a deeper common sense question of whether it is possible to generate a mutual respect, compassion, trust, or love toward people who come from such diverse cultures and societies in this day?
The amazing reality is that a partial answer comes from Columbus although unknown to most people in this day. Despite the massacre at La Navidad, Columbus overcame whatever initial anger he had toward the Taino, and appointed a young Spanish friar named Ramón Pané to study and document the Taino customs and religion by living among the native people, observing their way of life and recording what he learned of the people. Fray Ramón Pané actually lived with the Taino native peoples for four years. In about 1498 he completed and presented to Columbus his Relación acerca de las antigüedades de los indios ("An Account of the antiquities of the Indians").
Unfortunately, this original manuscript was lost. But, an incomplete Italian translation written in 1571 has survived. Pané's writings have more recently been reconstructed and re-translated back to Spanish, and edited by the scholar, José Juan Arrom, and subsequently translated to English. Pané’s written “Account of the Indians” is more than likely the first known book of research written in a European language in the newly discovered continent. This original account was believed to have contained accurate and unbiased descriptions and quite valuable observations recorded regarding Taino language, music, religion, and the worship of their deities called “zemi.”
Pané’s work is where those who are genuinely interested can find the earliest European source of information regarding these people. Taino is translated as “good and noble” and actually represents how Columbus experienced them in 1492, but not in 1493. He initially observed that he had encountered a culture that seemed friendly, humble, and peaceful. Ironically, it was not until the 1900s that a more appropriate scholarly approach to the indigenous peoples of the area was initiated, and not until the 1950s that scientists were capable of tracing Carib’s unique white-on-red pottery to the Orinoco and Amazon River basins in Northeastern South America to discover their origins.
Sadly, people today do not see the side of Columbus that sought understanding. Again, hate, anger, fear, superstition, and ignorance of a comprehensive picture of a people permits the existence of racism, discrimination, and resentments which poison the heart. Common sense would indicate that a much more positive and productive endeavor would be to focus our lessons to be learned from this turning point in history towards a real understanding of the people involved and of the genuine value of the indigenous peoples. The willingness to open one’s heart and mind and be receptive to understanding people who happen to be different from oneself will be a beginning point for human harmony, hatred will not.