Columbus Day, Indigenous Day/Columbus as Hero or Villain: A Native American Mormon Perspective

By October 13, 2014

I did not start to question Columbus Day until my first history course at Brigham Young University in 2008, when an instructor discussed with the class the controversies concerning Columbus and the Quincentennial in 1992. We read The Four Voyages: Being His Own Log-Book, Letters, and Dispatches with Connecting Narratives published by Penguin Classics in 1992. The class showed me how to search primary sources and understand the current debates about the legacy of Christopher Columbus. As a Latter-day Saint Native American, my complicated opinion of Columbus began to gel. I learned of his human weaknesses and impacts (both direct and non-direct) on indigenous peoples. As a historian, I came to recognize a historical figure?s context and the ?pastness of history.? I became increasingly uncomfortable with the appropriations of Columbus?s image, especially in the contests over Columbus Day and Indigenous Day.

These various debates and reactions to Columbus and his place in history expose the gaps in the reconciliation between Americans and their past. Dark episodes of indigenous genocide, indigenous removal, and indigenous and African enslavement mar this past. Rather than reconciling with this ugly side of history, as Michel-Rolph Trouillot explains in Silencing the Past (1995), privileged groups alter history to support certain power dynamics. The act of ?silencing? is forgotten, and people propagate particular perspectives of history without understanding the historiography, the origins of those viewpoints, and the silences.

Considering the controversies today, the celebrations of Columbus Day as a national holiday and the usage of American Indian mascots, I return to this ongoing discourse. With the announcement of Clark B. Hinckley?s book, Christopher Columbus: A Man Among the Gentiles, I reviewed how Mormon scholars have defined the LDS perspective of Christopher Columbus [1]. Hinckley?s work reiterates the studies of Arnold K. Garr and De Lamar Jensen. Garr, Department Chair of Church History and Doctrine at BYU (2006-2009), wrote Christopher Columbus: A Latter-day Saint Perspective in 1992. Jensen, BYU emeritus history professor, contributed a foreword to the book and also published ?Columbus and the Hand of God? in the Ensign (October 1992). Regarding Columbus, Hinckley like most Mormons refer to the Book of Mormon, 1 Nephi 13: 12 [2].

In 1992, during the controversial Columbus Quincentennnial, Jensen wrote,

?What, then, do we know of the real Columbus? What were his motives in pursuing his world-changing enterprise? Perhaps the greatest motivating feature of his life was his faith. His writings and the records kept by his contemporaries indicate that Columbus had unshakable faith that he was an instrument in God?s hands.

And, indeed, the Book of Mormon affirms that he was. In vision, Nephi ?looked and beheld a man among the Gentiles, who was separated from the seed of my brethren by the many waters; and I beheld the Spirit of God, that it ? wrought upon the man; and he went forth upon the many waters, even unto the seed of my brethren, who were in the promised land.? (1 Nep. 13:12.)

Columbus?s understanding of that design may well have been limited, but his conviction of being a part of it gave him a self-assurance, even stubbornness, that both amazed and exasperated his contemporaries? [3].

The Book of Mormon does not name Columbus as the ?man among the Gentiles,? but several LDS leaders have made the connection between him and the scripture (as the works of Hinckley, Jensen, and Garr emphasize). They claim that the LDS perspective sees Columbus only in the positive light of a divinely chosen historical figure. Jensen concludes, ?In our day the maligning has increased in intensity, but our awareness of what Columbus accomplished under God?s direction ought to remind us of our own indebtedness and responsibilities as benefactors of his fortitude. His chief concern, as ours should be, was not what people would think of him, but what God would think of him? [4].

According to Peter Martyr of Anghiera, an early historian of the European explorations in the Americas, an indigenous elder once invited Columbus to reflect on the ?path? of his soul (or what some might interpret as divine judgment). In an excerpt, Martyr describes an exchange between a respectable indigenous leader and Columbus, in which the elder advised Columbus [as interpreted by Diego Colon, who was taken captive to Spain during the first voyage]:

?I warn you then to be aware that souls have two paths when they leap forth from the body: one gloomy and hideous, prepared for those who cause trouble and are the enemies of the human race; the other delightful and pleasant, among nations. If therefore you remember you are mortal and that rewards will be duly assigned to each in accordance with his present actions, you will attack no one? [5].

Columbus wrote in one of his logs,

?On 2 January in the year 1492? on the grounds of information I had given your royal Highnesses concerning the lands of India and a prince who is called the Great Khan? and of his and his ancestors? frequent and vain applications to Rome for men learned in the holy faith who should instruct them in it, your Highnesses decided to send me, Christopher Columbus, to see these parts of India and the princes and peoples of those lands and consider the best means for their conversion? Your Highnesses ordained that I should not go eastward by land in the usual manner but by the western way which no one about whom we have positive information has ever followed.?

Historians seek to understand Columbus in his context. Many indigenous peoples of America became ?Indians? because of Columbus?s aspirations to ?see these parts of India? peoples of those lands and consider the best means for their conversion.? We cannot reverse the past, as LDS author Orson Scott Card imagines in Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus (1996). By considering diverse perspectives, we can move forward toward reconciliation and healing together as Americans.

___________________________________

[1] Trent Toone, ?Author Clark B. Hinckley writes book about Christopher Columbus with LDS angle,? Deseret News (October 13, 2014).

[2] Ibid.

[3] De Lamar Jensen, ?Columbus and the Hand of God,? Ensign (October 1992), accessed online, October 13, 2014, https://www.lds.org/ensign/1992/10/columbus-and-the-hand-of-god?lang=eng#pop_001-92910_000_003.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Geoffrey Eatough, ed. and trans., Selections from Peter Martyr, vol. 5 (Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 1998), 68.

Article filed under Current Events Race


Comments

  1. Thanks, Farina.

    Comment by Ben P — October 13, 2014 @ 4:22 pm

  2. Farina, have you (or anyone else in the comments) read Hinckley’s book? I have been curious since I found out about it this morning if it stands up to even a cursory scholarly review. I noted that his training is not in history or any of the other humanities.

    Comment by Curious — October 13, 2014 @ 4:59 pm

  3. I was hoping you would write this, Farina. Thanks for your thoughts!

    Comment by J Stuart — October 13, 2014 @ 5:10 pm

  4. I must admit that I have not read it. I only learned about the book recently. I read the Deseret News article about the book online. A colleague informed me of the news and the book, which reminded me of Garr and Jensen’s work. It was the attention grabbers and publicity of Hinckley’s book that inspired me to write something today, since these studies represent “the Latter-day Saint perspective” of Columbus rather than LDS perspectives (emphasis on the plural here).

    Comment by Farina — October 13, 2014 @ 6:53 pm

  5. Good thoughts, Farina. Thank you.

    Comment by JJohnson — October 13, 2014 @ 10:56 pm

  6. Thanks, Farina. As you suggest, the BoM is a complex text that is open to multiple readings and also has a varied history of reception (in spite of these attempts to establish a single “LDS perspective”). I like your call for greater attention to context, even as you indicate that these conversations can bring us closer to reconciliation with the past.

    FWIW, here was my 2010 JI foray into the BoM and Columbus Day politics: http://www.juvenileinstructor.org/columbus-the-european-conquest-and-the-radical-message-of-the-book-of-mormon/

    Comment by David G. — October 14, 2014 @ 6:53 am

  7. Thanks for this, Farina. I appreciate both the historiographical overview and the personal perspective you share.

    I have wondered for awhile now how Latter-day Saints of color and from around the world (particularly Latin Americans and Native Americans, but also African Americans, Africans, and other non-Europeans) read the passages from 1 Nephi. Has there been any research on this? And how do celebrations of Día de las Américas, Día de la Raza, etc. in Latin America shape how Mormons there approach/understand Columbus? This seems like an area ripe for research and one with potentially important consequences for LDS readings of scripture.

    Comment by Christopher — October 14, 2014 @ 8:10 am

  8. Chris: LOL…”Latter-day Saints of color”

    i don’t think that i would call Hinkley a historian, maybe a quote from the author says it all…

    “I took the approach to say what does this man look like if you simply believe what he said? If you read his writings and take them at face value, and you assume that he meant what he said, what kind of man emerges out of that? That was a very fascinating journey.” (Clark B. Hinkley)

    I think it would have been interesting to have included some of SWK’s talk were he tries to walk the fine line of how he discusses Columbus.

    Comment by Mr. Smallcanyon — October 14, 2014 @ 9:58 pm

  9. ^ Indeed, Mr. Smallcanyon. Spot-on quote. One of the first, main, enduring things I try to teach my history undergrads is not to take historical sources at face value, period, ever. I hope no one ever leaves my classroom convinced the best way to approach the past is to simply believe what everyone back there said.

    Great post, Farina. I think a lot of us were thinking these things this week and I appreciate your perspective.

    Comment by Tona H — October 15, 2014 @ 6:23 am


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