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Thursday, May 23, 2024
The Observer

Response to the response to "The truth about Columbus"

Mr. Acri’s response saddened me for several reasons.

First, I appreciate the opportunity to clarify one thing. Mr. Acri seems to conflate me, an alumna in Connecticut, with a current student and member of the Knights of Columbus. I’m not a Knight and I don’t speak for the organization or Notre Dame’s council. I wish he had refrained from addressing Council 1477 on my behalf.

Second, I actually applaud the intentions and mission of the Native American Student Association of Notre Dame (NASAND). I do not attack them or Indigenous Peoples Day anywhere in my piece. What I do is point out NASAND’s implied link between increasing support for natives and decreasing Columbus’ legacy, in which it echoes the ongoing national movement. The framing of their Oct. 9 event implied a zero-sum game — either Columbus is recognized or the natives are recognized. However, the vast majority of my argument addresses the national movement, not NASAND’s event or the organization in general. I apologize for not being clearer about the distinction between the two; it would have helped prevent Mr. Acri and NASAND from feeling personally attacked.

I’m all for more recognition of these underrepresented communities. My piece was about why that does not have to come at the expense of Columbus’ legacy, in America or at Notre Dame. It’s simply not based in truth. To be clear — it’s not that we owe Columbus reverence, it’s that we owe native people real confrontation of their problems, not a misguided distraction that unnecessarily divides us.

I think Mr. Acri’s response makes it clear that such a calling out was necessary. He provided two brief quotations out of context as all the “well-informed public” needs to know about this entire historical question — and as if that weren’t “enough,” here’s one more, from a man, not Columbus, who flagrantly disobeyed the laws of the volatile European society that Columbus was trying to enforce there.

This was disappointing. I’ve seen these troubling quotations. They’re exactly why I spent months researching Columbus. I lost sleep over them. But they’re soundbites, and we all — especially in higher education — need to deeply probe such anecdotal, emotive arguments. Again, after serious study, I stand by what I said. Anyone who cares to read more deeply on this topic can see that Columbus was no monster. He was a much worse administrator than captain. He didn’t always put his good intentions into effect, especially when his men rebelled against him. He was not the world’s strongest leader, and his world was violent and characterized by many shades of racism. All true — and the same could be said of many significant historical figures.

What I object to — in the national movement, and at NASAND while they espouse it — is the singling out of Columbus as patient zero for Native Americans’ suffering.

It’s not unlike blaming William the Conqueror for the suffering of the Rohingya people today. His effect on England arguably paved the way for the powerful British empire, whose policies are at least partially responsible for the genocide the Rohingya now face.

This is tenuous, but so is saying that Columbus causes PTSD in teens on reservations in Arizona (which, again, is not NASAND’s claim, but rather the claim of a movement they’re currently associating with).

If we find a quotation of William’s, boasting about how his victory “shall shape the fortunes of generations to come” for example, or something similar, would that prove his responsibility for what happened years after his death? What else do we need?

It’s just a thought experiment, but it’s important. Mr. Acri claims that NASAND’s opposition to the murals isn’t really about Columbus. I wish that were true. Please, let’s make it true. I urge NASAND to continue to focus its energies on raising awareness, solving problems, and honoring the legacy of the peoples of the Americas, rather than wasting time on a symbol that has been blown out of proportion by political polarization and an inaccurate biography by Washington Irving.

It’s not liberating for natives to be wedded to the symbol of Columbus as oppressor for several reasons. It’s not really true, except for Arawaks and some Caribes, it’s certainly not helpful in meeting the real needs of native communities today and — most importantly — it diverts attention from the far more real and sinister oppressors they have had and continue to have today.

There are plenty of worthy targets of NASAND’s focus. Columbus is an easy target and a false one; leave him alone. Let’s open our eyes, see Columbus for who (and when) he was, see what he means in American and Catholic history, and move on to more important work.

And please, the next time someone raises a critique of your group, presume a little more good will and common ground than you did toward me. As student-leaders of Notre Dame, it’s our responsibility to model civil conversation.

Rebecca Devine class of 2016 Oct. 25

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.