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Home arrow Geography arrow The Myths That Made America : An Introduction to American Studies

and the Columbus Controversy

For many Native Americans, to be asked to celebrate Columbus is the equivalent of asking Jews to celebrate Hitler.

Ella Shohat and Robert Stam, Unthinking Eurocentrism

Der Amerikaner, der den Kolumbus zuerst entdeckte, machte eine bose Entdeckung.

Georg Christoph Lichtenberg

Lichtenberg’s aphorism points to the fact that until the period of the American Revolutionary War, the term ‘American’ referred to the native inhabitants of the

American continent, not to the English settlers. Lichtenberg’s unusual perspective on who was being discovered in the Americas (Columbus, not the Natives) is used in many discussions and new publications of the early 1990s to reconfigure the Eurocentric view on the ‘new world.’ The quincentennial of ‘discovery’ in 1992 has been a watershed for questioning the status of Columbus as hero, adventurer, opportunist, slave trader, and slaveholder in revisionisms that come in many different shapes and manifestations.

Literature and film are two prime media in which the claim to Columbus’s legacy has not only been contested but in which the very idea of ‘discovery’ has also been outright refuted. For many Native Americans, Columbus’s arrival in the Americas marks the beginning of colonialism, genocide, rape, slavery, expropriation and displacement, as well as cultural death. Columbus stands at the beginning of a new and for many inhabitants of the Americas deadly era.

Authors of multicultural American literature and Native American writers in particular have published essays, novels, poetry, and histories on these issues. In 1992, the Before Columbus Foundation, established in 1976 by the writers Ish- mael Reed, Victor Hernandez Cruz, Shawn Wong, and Rudolfo Anaya, put out The Before Columbus Foundation Fiction Anthology with the agenda of going before and “beyond” Columbus (Strads et al., “Introduction” xi). Going ‘beyond’ Columbus and his ‘discovery’ is also at the core of Native American rewritings of ‘discovery.’ Many of these texts are exploring the dark areas of history, often with a postmodern fantastic twist (cf. McHale, Postmodernist Fiction), as do Louise Erdrich and Michael Dorris in The Crown of Columbus (1991) or, even more radically, Gerald Vizenor in The Heirs of Columbus (1991). The first use a present-day campus romance to revisit the historical evidence and site of ‘discovery,’ the latter invents a trickster figure who revises the historical legacy by rendering Columbus a part-Native “crossblood.”

Humor and re-invention are also part of several other re-envisionings: Osage writer and poet Carter Revard presents a parodic reversal of the discovery scene, this time set in Europe:

It may be impossible to civilize the Europeans. When I claimed England for the Osage Nation, last month, some of the English chiefs objected. [...] So I said the hell with England for this trip and went to France and rented a little Renault in Paris and drove past the chateaux to Biarritz, stopping only to proclaim that everything the Loire and Seine flowed past was ours. [...] The people there talk differently from those in London, but their signs are much the same - they use a lingua franca so to speak - so they recognized my visa card and gave the Renault gasoline much like that in Oklahoma, globalized enough so they are not completely benighted. Whether they understood that France now belongs to us was not clear, but they were friendly and they fed me well, accepting in return some pieces of beautifully painted paper and metal discs with allegorical figures on them, with which they seemed almost childishly pleased [...]. (“Report” 333-34)

Revard’s travel account about a journey to Europe intertextually engages with Columbus’s first letter from the ‘new world’ and inverts the European perspective of ‘discovering’ and ‘civilizing’ the Americas. Columbus’s proclamation about taking possession of the Americas on behalf of the Spanish Crown is reconfigured in the voice of the Native discoverer signifying on the ignorance and ‘childishness’ of the Europeans, i.e. the French, in an anachronistic postmodern fashion that allows the Native American protagonist who is ‘colonizing’ Europe - and who in the European imagination has of course been linked predominantly to a state of nature - to drive around by car and to use money and credit cards. The comparison “much like that in Oklahoma” echoes the comparison in Columbus’s writing between the ‘new world’ nature and climate to that of particular Spanish regions: Columbus’s Andalusia is Revard’s Oklahoma. Revard’s irony is matched in the self-reflexive reimagining of first contact by African American comedian Flip Wilson. When his Columbus, conversing with Queen Isabella in African American Vernacular English, sets out for America in order to discover Ray Charles, he meets Natives celebrating among themselves:

It’s a big holiday in America that day, a big holiday called “Not-Having-Been Discovered- Yet-Day.” All the Indians on the beach, they are celebrating. They got sandwiches, six- packs, three or four bags of whatever it is they putting in the pipe. Chris leans over the rail of the ship, he says, “Hey y’all. Y’all. Where is this? [...] My name is Christopher Columbus. I’m a discoverer. I’m gonna discover America. I’m going to discover y’all.” (“Christopher Columbus”)

It is only when “the Indians are throwing rocks, spears, flaming arrows, tree trunks [...] yelling out a bunch of profanities about Chris’s mother and everything” (ibid.) that Wilson’s Columbus, unsuccessful at colonization, decides to turn the boat around and to leave any further ‘discoveries’ in the ‘new world’ to the Puritans. Wilson’s Columbus provides us with a metafictional commentary on the narrative of discovery and the precarious claims to truth it has held, and counters long-cherished notions of European superiority as well as indigenous naivete.

In Native American poetry, Jimmie Durham in his poem “Columbus Day” (1983) addresses the Native American experience in the American school system almost ten years prior to the culmination of the Columbus controversy:

In school I was taught the names Columbus, Cortez, and Pizarro and A dozen filthy murderers.

A bloodline all the way to General Miles,

Daniel Boone and General Eisenhower. (10)

Durham’s speaker makes no distinction between Columbus on the one hand and Cortes and Pizarro on the other, as did the poets of the American Revolution: here, all of them are part of the same criminal history of exploitation. And this history is extended to US-American historical figures who are placed in a continuum with the Spanish conquerors and who figure as agents of westward expansion, Manifest Destiny, and war.

Further critical, historiographical, fictional, and lyrical perspectives are collected in numerous anthologies. To name only two: America in 1492 is an alternative history in which Alvin Josephy has gathered together renowned writers and scholars, among them N. Scott Momaday and Francis Jennings, in order to describe and promote an understanding of “America and its traditions on the eve of the Columbus voyages. Its point of reference is America, not Europe” (Josephy, “Introduction” 7); editor Joseph Bruchac’s Returning the Gift: Poetry and Prose from the First North American Native Writers ’ Festival is the result of a gathering of more than 300 Native writers held in Norman, Oklahoma, in 1992. Festival historian Geary Hobson calls it a “showcase of Native American literature” (“On a Festival” xxvii). In addition, Coco Fusco and Guillermo Gomez-Pena have produced “Radio Pirata: Colon Go Home!,” which aired on National Public Radio and was printed in Fusco’s English Is Broken Here (179-95).

The most prestigious Hollywood project in the context of the quincentennial is Ridley Scott’s 1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992), which is “erratically revisionist but fundamentally protective of Columbus’s good name. Here the scintillating beauty of the cinematography enfolds the violence of conquest into the ideology of the aesthetic” (Shohat and Stam, Unthinking 64). Whereas we may be hesitant to identify an “ideology of the aesthetic,” the film in no uncertain terms takes over the perspective of the ‘discoverers’ and thus coheres with an overall pattern: “Most discovery narratives place the reader on a European ship, the land is sighted (usually through an anachronistic telescope), and the ‘Indians’ are glimpsed on the beach or behind the trees” (ibid. 71).

More clearly revisionist films produced around the 1992 debates range from Surviving Columbus (1992) and Columbus on Trial (1992) to Robbie Leppzer’s

Columbus Didn’t Discover Us (1992). These films privilege the perspective of the indigenous inhabitants over that of the European invaders; they reconstruct tribal traditions, the history of Native tribes in various North American regions, and the suffering of Native Americans due to white aggression, missionary politics, and cultural and physical displacement.

In addition to revisionist literature and film, we find another kind of historical ‘rescue’ attempt, namely an archaeological project that seeks to go ‘before’ Columbus rather than ‘beyond.’ Charles C. Mann has investigated the pre-contact Americas in 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus and, most recently, in Before Columbus: The Americas of 1491. Drawing on findings by anthropologists, archaeologists, and paleolinguists, Mann refutes many stereotypes about pre-contact Native life. For one thing, the Americas, he suggests,

were a far more urban, more populated, and more technologically advanced region than generally assumed; and the Indians, rather than living in static harmony with nature, radically engineered the landscape across the continents, to the point that even “timeless” natural features like the Amazon rainforest can be seen as products of human intervention. (1491, book cover)

This perspective refuses to subscribe to the view that the history of the Americas only begins with European knowledge of the continent and thus constitutes another critique of Eurocentric historiography and the doctrine of discovery. With all these revisionist publications drawing attention to the fact that Columbus was complicit in introducing a discourse of violent ethnocentricity to the Americas, it comes as no surprise that the public festivities to commemorate the Quincentenary were controversial, to say the least. Sinking Columbus (2000) documents how the original plan of the organizing commission appointed by the US government to ‘celebrate the discovery of America’ in 1992 failed. However, the authors, Stephen Summerhill and John Alexander Williams, who were both involved in these preparations, paradoxically see this failure as a success: as the official Quincentenary “struggled unsuccessfully to escape being an anachronism” (Sinking 181), it was superseded by “an unofficial, other Quincentenary that gave voice to the subaltern” (ibid. 126). Rather than affirming the Columbian legacy of the United States in a patriotic spirit, as had been done in both the 1792 and 1892 celebrations, the 1992 commemorations clearly also belonged to those who were victimized by this legacy; thus, the event introduced a new kind of national memorial culture and a new kind of critical patriotism.

Illustration 6: Columbus: Savage

Poster created for AIM Denver, Colorado by Walt Pourier, Oglala Lakota (Creative Director, Nakota Designs).

On the occasion of the Columbus Day festivities, October 12, 1992, poster art, cartoons, buttons, and pamphlets reinforced the Native American perspective and protest with epigrams such as “Discover Columbus’s Legacy: 500 Years of Racism, Oppression & Stolen Land,” “Wanted for Genocide: Christopher Columbus,” and “Columbus: Savage.” A more recent, post 9/11 image indicates that fighting terrorism - more or less successfully - has been a Native American activity since the arrival of Columbus and thus provocatively parallels the destruction of Native American culture with the 2001 destruction of the World Trade Center in New York City.

In 1992, Native American organizations also were joined by other oppositional voices. Dennis speaks of an “anti-Columbus coalition - American Indians, some religious groups, environmentalists, peace activists, political protesters, and others” (“Reinventing” 156). Yet the main Columbus Day parade in 1992 engaged in by Italian Americans in New York City (many others had been cancelled) to the great relief of the authorities went smoothly: Columbus may have been contested but he still was a figure of consensus for many Americans - and as good as any other reason to have a day off from work, or school.

Illustration 7: Fighting Terrorism Since 1492

“Homeland Security (Geronimo’s Band),” Azusa Publishing (Web, 5 March 2014).

Apropos school: despite recent shifts in perspective, in American elementary schools the teaching of Columbus’s heroism is a mandatory part of the curriculum - a situation that will not change any time soon. And thus, Shohat and Stam remind us of the larger ramifications of the Columbus myth:

[T]he Columbus story is crucial to Eurocentrism, not only because Columbus was a seminal figure within the history of colonialism, but also because idealized versions of this story have served to initiate generation after generation into the colonial paradigm. For many children in North America and elsewhere, the tale of Columbus is totemic; it introduces them not only to the concepts of “discovery” and the “New World,” but also to the idea of history itself. (Unthinking 62)

James W. Loewen has devoted an entire booklet to how the myth of Columbus’s ‘discovery’ is taught in American schools. His revisionist publication is titled provocatively Lies My Teacher Told Me About Christopher Columbus (1992) and surveys, among other things, fifteen widely used high school and middle school textbooks of American history to see what they have to say about Christopher Columbus. His findings show that “almost everything [written about Columbus] is either wrong or unknowable. The textbooks have taken us on a trip of their own, away from the facts of history, into the realm of myth” (Lies 1).

Still, since 1992 “a distinct American Indian version of the holiday” (Kubal, Cultural Movements 75) has been established in various states and locales (mostly college campuses): an “American Indian memory of national origins” (ibid.) is no longer completely ignored by official discourses on 1492. Timothy Kubal has recently used political process theory in order to show how ethnic and political minorities have used the occasion of Columbus Day over time in order to empower themselves and their political visions and to mobilize through social movements and activism connected to the festivities of one particular holiday. The counter-festivities of groups such as AIM (American Indian Movement) or the Indians of All Tribes have effectively changed the meaning and perception of Columbus Day within the national imaginary, a change that is also beginning to trickle down through the different levels of educational institutions.

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