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Wednesday, April 24, 2024
The Observer

The truth about Columbus

Recently, members of the Native American Student Association rallied in favor of Indigenous Peoples’ Day (IPD) by protesting the Columbus murals in the Main Building. They didn’t bother explaining the connection between IPD and Columbus in their call to action, because it has become well-known in recent years. The theory goes as follows: since Columbus’ arrival, the suffering of indigenous peoples has been horrendous, therefore his legacy should not be celebrated. I have no opposition to holidays honoring indigenous peoples at Notre Dame or elsewhere. I grew up in Phoenix, where the culture is deeply enriched by native peoples, and I think that other communities have much to learn from their histories. However, I must oppose the flawed facts and logic underlying this attack on Columbus. In the spirit of full disclosure: I have spent months researching Columbus as part of my employment at the headquarters of the Knights of Columbus. Given the movement against him, my team found it essential to dig deep and examine whether Columbus is a defensible patron for our organization. I can say with full confidence that he absolutely is. Recent attacks fault Columbus both for being a genocidal mastermind and a dunce. People of intellectual integrity should raise an eyebrow at this. Are we supposed to dismiss Columbus because he was on a mission to exterminate whole peoples and steal their gold, or because he miscalculated the size of a planet? In truth, Columbus was a brilliant navigator, and he didn’t know he hadn’t reached Asia (though he knew the world was round — it was in Aquinas ). Yes, he hoped to find gold for his patrons, but he also hoped that the natives — whom he greatly admired — would be attracted to Christianity in the course of their exchanges. He actually left money in his will to train missionaries to learn their languages. Critics also say Columbus was a violent man, often citing as proof the fact that he was once sent back to Spain in chains. In fact, he had enraged his fellow Europeans when he punished two men for mistreating the natives. Even Bartolome de las Casas, the outspoken critic of Spanish colonial practices, said that Columbus’ motivations and intentions were above reproach. In general, Columbus’ critics tend to despise all symbols of Western influence. Howard Zinn, for instance, had little good to say about any American historical figure. Ward Churchill compared Columbus to a Nazi — but he also leveled that same charge at victims of the 9/11 attack. These two individuals are behind the theory that unfortunately influenced the Native American Student Association to think their (very legitimate!) call for recognition ought to be set in front of the Columbus murals. This is a shame. Even more divisive than the twisted facts employed in anti-Columbus rhetoric, however, is its twisted logic. It simply doesn’t make sense to argue that Columbus should be held responsible for all the crimes committed by those who came after him. (Three-quarters of Americans agree, according to recent polling.) Almost no cultural icon’s legacy is perfect, not even the saints of our Catholic Church. If we go on a revisionist crusade, only Mary atop the Dome is safe. In New Haven this past year, I supported Yale’s decision to rename Calhoun College. Surely, other people our society currently honors are undeserving. But Columbus was no Calhoun. This overbroad political attack ignores the reasons that Columbus Day exists in the first place. It is revelatory that the same year Luigi Gregori began painting Notre Dame’s Columbus murals, 1882, the Knights of Columbus were founded. American Catholics faced serious discrimination at that time — especially if they were immigrants from Ireland or southern and eastern Europe. Catholics had to convince other Americans that we could be loyal citizens, too — which is why we read the Preamble to the Constitution before every Irish football game to this day. Columbus has come to symbolize the contributions of immigrants to America — especially Catholics, Italians and Hispanics, who often commemorate the blending of European and native cultures as el Dia de la Raza. In keeping with this tradition, the Notre Dame council has maintained a fund since the 1960s that currently helps 15 minority students attend Notre Dame. Fact: Native Americans have suffered awfully. Fact: Columbus neither intended nor caused the vast majority of this suffering. Fact: Columbus is an important figure in the history of American Catholicism, and to many other communities that make up our diverse nation. His image is appropriately housed in the Main Building of America’s greatest Catholic university, just steps away from the Knights of Columbus building, where young Catholics who bear his name carry out countless works of charity, unity and fraternity each year.

Rebecca Devine

class of 2016

Oct. 13

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