History tells us: Give Columbus a break
Normally, this observer waits until just before Columbus Day to write this annual column in which I try to dissuade Native Americans from picking on Christopher Columbus. But this year I’m taking up this subject much earlier and sending it to Russell Means of the American Indian Movement in the hope his sense of justice can be redirected to celebrate the Native American victory at the Battle of the Little Big Horn, instead.
But first, let’s explain once again why Columbus Day should not be the target of the understandable anger of Native Americans.
Columbus was not Italian. He was born in Genoa before the nation of Italy was created. He left Genoa at an early age for Portugal. There, he changed his name to Colon – a name often adopted by Sephardic Jews forced by the Inquisition to embrace Catholicism.
This may explain why the notes Columbus wrote on the margins of his navigation charts were written in Hebrew. Apparently, Columbus never wrote anything in Italian. But he was fluent in both Spanish and Portuguese. In fact, he lived more years of his life in Portugal than Spain or anywhere else.
Moreover, Columbus never intended to discover what we now call the Western Hemisphere. His intention was to reach what we think of as East India and that explains why what we call Native Americans today were mistakenly called: Indians.
But the fact remains he did make several landfalls in the Caribbean. He did leave some men behind whose behavior was sometimes atrocious. But whatever Columbus did on his several voyages to the Western Hemisphere, he did it in the service of Spain – not Italy.
Yet what followed after the discovery of the Western Hemisphere did produce some real villains. The worst were: the Spanish conquerors Francisco Pizarro (1475-1541) and Hernando Cortez (1485-1547).
In terms of rape and pillage, Pizarro was peerless. He defeated the Inca Empire, imposed Spanish culture and religion and holds the record for the greatest extraction of treasure from those he conquered while employing the smallest armed force and resources. Hernando Cortez, with fewer than six hundred men, 20 horses and less than a dozen cannon pillaged, raped and conquered an Aztec empire of more than five million people.
Both Pizzaro and Cortez were absolutely ruthless in their use of force and artful in their use of guile to trick the hapless natives of the Western Hemisphere. Rightfully, they, not Columbus, should be the focus of justifiable Central and South American anger and protest.
Interestingly, Mexicans do not bother much with Cortez or Pizzaro. Instead, they celebrate Cinco de Mayo, 1862, the day the Mexicans defeated the French army at the Battle of Puebla. Farther south, Central and South Americans celebrate the life of Simon Bolivar whose military and political leadership resulted in independence for Columbia, Venezuela, Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia.
So, if Columbus and Columbus Day are historically inaccurate targets for protests, is there a more historically accurate way for North American Natives to make their voices heard? Yes. A better alternative would be to celebrate the victory of the Cheyenne, Sioux and Arapaho at the Battle of the Little Big Horn.
While that victory did not expel the forces of the United States, it was a smashing victory on a par with Cinco de Mayo and resulted in the death of General George A. Custer who, by most accounts, was a vicious scoundrel.
All great struggles for justice need an historical event around which to rally. All great stories need both heroes and villains. The Battle of the Little Big Horn provides all three: An epic battle won by Native Americans, a villain in General Custer and heroes such as Chiefs Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse and Red Horse.
Justice and historical accuracy would be better served by leaving Columbus Day alone and, on each June 25th, celebrate the Battle of the Little Big Horn.
William Hamilton, nationally syndicated columnist and featured commentator for USA Today, is a former professor of history and political science at Nebraska Wesleyan University.
©2003. William Hamilton.