Your Views: The facts about indigenous peoples

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(Photo by Aleksandra Kochurova)
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To the editor:

The proposal floating around city hall, pending action as early as this month without much public discussion, to substitute “Indigenous Peoples’ Day” for Columbus Day, relies upon widespread misapprehension of history.

Columbus’ 1492 discovery of the Western Hemisphere is erroneously faulted for leading to the genocide of its indigenous peoples. On the contrary, only a year later in 1493, Pope Alexander VI issued the Inter cetera papal bull which protected native peoples with the intent to “save their souls” by conversion, according to papalencyclicals.net.

I had the opportunity to carefully handle one of the ornate, hand-scripted copies of this document at my alma mater, the Catholic University of America in D.C. Far from allowing genocide, the papal bull instructs, “It is your duty, to lead the peoples dwelling in those islands and countries to embrace the Christian religion” and insists “the health of souls be cared for” while nations are brought to the faith.

This “Doctrine of Discovery” forms the basis of all European claims in the Americas as well as the foundation for the United States’ western expansion. In the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1823 “Johnson v. McIntosh” case, Chief Justice John Marshall’s opinion in the unanimous decision held that this principle had affirmed the right of settlers to inhabit this land, according to gilderlehrman.org.

Columbus’ discovery resulted in human moral progress which led to the end of such barbarous practices as the Aztec’s human sacrifices, estimated at as many as 20,000 per year, according to historyextra.com.

As current inhabitants of this continent, we at our peril undertake formal actions calling into question the legitimacy of our presence here since those who would change the holiday’s name risk a slippery slope which ends by calling into question our right to inhabit this continent.

A more troublesome, often overlooked development lies in our colonial and United States history. Because Columbus and his successor explorers came under a directive to Christianize the peoples they encountered, despite wars, conflicts and pandemics during the early decades of the encounter between these different cultures, at least in what became the United States, the British maintained good relations with the native tribes with which they traded for furs and other items that were coveted in England.

Some tribes sided with the British in the French and Indian War, but when Britain prevailed, it sought the friendship and alliance of even the tribes that had sided with the French. In return, the tribes asked for protection against white colonial expansion. So, King George III issued the Royal Proclamation of 1763 which rendered all land grants given by the government to British subjects who fought for the Crown against France worthless and forbade all white settlement west of a line drawn through the Appalachian’s mountain crests.

He delineated everything west of that line, known as the “Royal Proclamation Line,” as an “Indian Reserve,” according to Wikipedia. Colonists who had already settled west of the Appalachians were ordered to return east of the mountains.

Excluding the white colonists from the vast region west of the Appalachians filled people within the colonies with indignation and was a factor in the discontent which would later motivate the American Revolution. Many – including George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and the Lee family – had bought land claims, with hopes to resell for substantial profit, in the now-forbidden territories.

However, many, including Washington, felt that the measure was only temporary in order to ensure greater peace with the native tribes. Colonial authorities pushed a plan to increase the area allowed for settlement, but the crown never gave approval. Britain committed 10,000 troops along the Royal Proclamation Line to make settlers leave and stop new ones with limited success. When the associated costs led to increased taxes on the colonists, eventually their discontent led to the revolution, according to thoughtco.com.

Whatever issues there were in the early days of colonial settlement, at least in what became the United States, the British and the native tribes had worked things out so that both white Europeans and indigenous peoples could share this continent. The colonists’ victory in the American Revolution erased the Royal Proclamation Line.

The fault for our country’s mistreatment of indigenous peoples lies not with Columbus, whose discovery revolutionized much of the world, but in the American founders’ avarice for land. We should not fault Columbus for what the American revolutionaries and generations of their successors did to the indigenous peoples of this continent.

-Dino Drudi, Alexandria

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