The Legacy of Columbus

Aug 15th, 1991 | By | Category: 3-2: The Persistence of Native Peoples, Editor's Essay
By Paul Boyer

The Indian method of navigation; in Benzoni's Historia del Mondo Nuovo, 1563

In the summer of 1893 the nation’s attention was focused on Chicago, where a sparkling city of plaster had been painstak­ingly built. Inspired by the grandness of Paris, America’s most revered architects, sculptors, painters and landscape artists designed a set of ornate white buildings and constructed them around a large central lagoon. Shaded walkways, enormous fountains and statues filled the open spaces.

The White City, as it was called, was built to house the World’s Columbian Exposition, a celebration of Columbus’s arrival in the Americas 400 years earlier. Halls were filled with art, cultural artifacts, and the latest industrial innovations. Special displays were presented by nations from Europe to Asia. The president, his cabinet, governors, and foreign dignitaries were among the many thousands of visitors.

The 400th anniversary came at a critical moment in the nation’s history. Only three years earlier, the 1890 Census had revealed that no vast tracts of unsettled territory remained in the country. From coast to coast, ranches, farms, towns and cities were quickly filling in the once threatening land. To many, this meant that the frontier had been conquered and that civiliza­tion—a uniquely American civilization—had triumphed. One era had ended and another had begun.

The Columbian Exposition was a monument to this new civi­lization and Christopher Columbus was honored as the hemi­sphere’s founding father. A twenty foot statute in his likeness was unveiled and smaller models were sold as souvenirs. A Spanish descendant of the mariner attended the fair as a special guest and reportedly was nearly moved to tears.

What was conspicuously absent from the festivities, however, was any thoughtful presentation of the Indian cultures that had occupied the land for thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans. Native peoples, it seems, were seen as part of the now conquered frontier—something that was being left behind — while the Columbian Exposition was looking optimistically to a new future.

Instead, Indians were offered only as a side show attraction to amuse and, at times, shock visitors. The New York Times report­ed, for example, that many were “sickened by the horrible sight” of a sun dance that was presented by Quackahl Indians. “The Indians,” the story reported, “with heavy twine strings fastened through slits in their bare backs, raced around a narrow platform, driven by two other Indians, who seemed to take a wild pleasure in the act.”

A group of Bolivian Indians made only a slightly better impression when they were brought to Chicago for the exposi­tion and, in a promotional rehearsal, played wooden flutes for a small gathering of reporters. A rendition of Yankee Doodle was politely received but their appearance caused the most com­ment. One writer concluded that the group’s most imposing member “wore a suit of clothes of the same cut, color, and general appearance of those worn by farmers in the rural districts of New Jersey. He looked like an exaggerated edition of Farmer Hayseed from Wayback.”

These simplistic portrayals of Indians and their cultures were opposed by some. Emma C. Sickels, head of the Indian Committee of the Universal Peace Union, charged that the exposition organizers were deliberately portraying Indians as brutal and sub-human. “Every effort has been put forth,” she argued, “to make the Indian exhibit mislead the American peo­ple. It has been used to work up sentiment against the Indian by showing that he is either savage or can be educated only by Government agencies.”

She continued: “The Indian agents and their backers knew well that if the civilized Indian got a representation in the fair the public would wake up to the capabilities of the Indian for self-govern­ment and realize that all they needed was to be left alone.” It was, sadly, a message few wanted to hear in 1893.

But what a difference a century makes. We are now approaching the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival, which is half a millennium and, it might seem, an occasion for even greater celebration. Yet no great Columbian Exposition is planned for this century and it is unlikely that any new monuments to Columbus will be unveiled.

Instead, the nation approaches 1992 in a more uncertain and reflective mood. The things that were taken for granted then—the nation’s right of conquest, the blessing of European civilization, the inconsequence of other peoples and other values—are no longer accepted as truth. In its place an understanding is slowly emerging in this nation that the harsh legacy of conquest survives long after the territory has been captured. One hundred years ago Americans believed that the battle had been won. Today we realize it may just be beginning.

The Columbian Exposition ignored the vitality of native cultures, but it could not make them go away. Instead, they are resurgent in the United States and throughout the hemisphere. With grow­ing confidence they are asking to be heard as fundamental inequities remain un­solved and, in some nations, brutal repres­sion is still a fact of life. Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa put the issue starkly:

Immense opportunities brought by the civilization that discovered and con­quered America have been beneficial only to a minority, sometimes a very small one; whereas the great majority managed to have only the negative share of the conquest—that is, con­tributing in their serfdom and sacrifice, in their misery and neglect, to the pros­perity and refinement of the western­ized elite.

How native societies respond to this continuing legacy varies from armed rebellion to political pressure. But in either form, the fundamental struggle, when shed of political rhetoric, remains the same throughout the hemisphere: First is the belief that native peoples have the right to determine their own futures and retain their unique cultures. Second is the understanding that they deserve equal access to their nation’s power and wealth.

Success is, however, far from certain. In the Amazon, the celebrated efforts by small tribal groups to retain their culture and preserve their home appears almost quixotic. A happy ending to the bloody and debilitating rebellions that spring up elsewhere in Central and South America also seems unlikely.

But in the United States, which also has a shameful history of failed Indian policies that range from the criminal to the absurd, there is now more reason for optimism. During the past 25 years, Native Americans have moved further towards the goals of self-determination than any time since European coloniza­tion. Tribal rights are being aggressively asserted on a growing number of reserva­tions. Traditional cultures are being rebuilt and the strength of traditional val­ues are increasingly respected. Economic development is being promoted and political savvy is no longer rare.

Much of this work has gone unnoticed in the mainstream culture, however. To the frustration of many Native Americans, Indians are still seen as peo­ple of the past who have been swallowed-up by twentieth century America. They are frequently viewed as simple natives astride spotted ponies or despondent and dependent wards of the federal govern­ment—images that have changed little since 1893.

But while it is true that poverty and alco­holism are real and critically important issues, the untold story is of hope and action. More than ever before, Native Americans are using the strength of their heritage to create opportunity and empow­erment for the twenty-first century.

In the process they are also winning, after 500 years, victory over the legacy of Columbus. If that can be achieved, we may finally have reason to celebrate again in the year 2092.

In This Issue

Indian controlled colleges emerged over two decades ago to offer opportunity for individuals and empowerment for tribal communi­ties. By providing skills and com­munity resources in the context of the surrounding tribal culture, the colleges have become an important force for self-determination. And by working together they have also created a unique and influential educational movement.

But they are also part of a larger movement throughout the nation and the world. The problems they must solve and the barriers they face are shared by native peoples every­where.

In this issue we look at a few of these themes and see how they are solved in other cultures. In Hawaii, for example, the language of the islands nearly disappeared, but an innovative program at the University of Hawaii is helping to bring it back into everyday use. In North America, an exchange pro­gram between Northwest Indian College in Washington State and the Lacandon Indians of Mexico also demonstrates that there are common interests and needs. In addition, researcher Ray Barnhardt looks more broadly at higher educa­tion efforts by indigenous peoples from Australia to the Arctic and finds that they share many common goals.

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