“We live our lives as characters in the grand narrative into which we have been socialized as children and conform as adults. That narrative is the story told to itself by the dominant society of which we are a part. We internalize narrative as ideology. Ideology is a story told by people in power…By rewriting the story, we can challenge the structures of power. All stories can and should be challenged.” – Carolyn Merchant
Today is a National Holiday. Banks and public offices are closed to commemorate the discovery of the New World by Christopher Columbus. We celebrate this event in the Western world as the beginning of a new age, and in our collective societal brainwashed state, few question whether or not the event was truly a cause for celebration.
Cultures have myths about themselves that they pass on to succeeding generations. The United States is no exception. Elementary school history books sing with the bravery of the Pilgrims, seeking religious freedom, crossing the ocean, befriending the indigenous people of the Americas, and living happily ever after. Reality’s more complicated blend of details does include bravery, sacrifice and good deeds, but also a fair share of atrocity and morally reprehensible behavior.
The American mythos echoes with shadows of truth and the harsh light of reality. The United States of America is a great nation, established based on unparalleled ideals, but these principles are not etched in stone like a monument that cannot be toppled, nor were they strictly adhered to at the time of the nation’s founding. Ideals are simply goals that may never be achieved but must be constantly and diligently pursued.
As President of a fledgling United States, Thomas Jefferson, a gentleman from Virginia to who are attributed the words “all men are created equal,” personally sanctioned the removal of the Creek and Cherokee peoples from the state of Georgia. While few acknowledged it at the time, “removal” was just a whitewashed term for genocide. Native Americans were forced from their lands under the guise of “civilizing” them, and those who refused to leave were eliminated permanently.
Jefferson advocated, “two measures are deemed explicit. First to encourage them (the Indians) to abandon hunting. Secondly to multiply trading houses among them…leading them thus to agriculture, to manufactures, and civilization .” In other words, Native Americans should only be allowed to stay in the habitat they had maintained for millennia only if they consented to completely abandon their culture and their way of life. For many, death was preferable to living under the new reality of the white man.
Jefferson also infamously owned and had sexual relations with slaves, like many of his “gentlemen” compatriots.
On July 4, 1776, the 56 white men who declared that “all men are created equal” uttered a profound truth, which they did not put into practice during their lifetimes. For the Founding Fathers, equality did not extend to women or to men not of the Caucasian race, and rights were certainly not afforded to nature. The liberty and freedom they coveted intensely enough to spark revolution, they nevertheless had every intention of denying to the vast majority of other humans and all non-humans. The same men who spoke of inalienable rights expanded their own empires on the backs of slaves while simultaneously exterminating entire cultures from the North American landscape. The conditional nature of the values of these men; however, does not diminish the veracity of their words or ideals. Human actions are often in conflict with stated ideals. The challenge is to unite them.
On Columbus Day, we can reflect on what is hailed as achievement in Western American civilization, but we should reflect on what has been lost. Thousands of rich cultures in this hemisphere have been annihilated, and a vast, unspoiled landscape has been pillaged for the benefit of a few white men. The casualties: Crow, Mohawk, Cherokee, Creek, passenger pigeon, old-growth forest, native prairie… The list is millions of lives long, yet the delusion continues.
“The life of white men is slavery. They are prisoners in towns or farms. The life my people want is a life of freedom. I have seen nothing that a white man has, houses or railways or clothing or food that is as good as the right to move in the open country, and live in our own fashion.” – Sitting Bull
“No European who has tasted Savage life can afterwards bear to live in our societies (Benjamin Franklin).”
Unfortunately, on a global scale, we no longer have the option of "savage" life, thanks in large part to the legacy of Christopher Columbus.
Carolyn Merchant - Earthcare
Howard Zinn - A People's History of the United States