Columbus Day: Discovering America

christopher-columbusAccording to most history textbooks, Christopher Columbus (c.1451-1506) received money from King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain to sail three ships (Nina, Pinta, Santa Maria) west to China and India. He landed in the Bahamas on October 12, 1492. As a result, Columbus is credited with “discovering” America. I used to celebrate Columbus Day, which was made a federal holiday in 1937. Then I learned about the Trail of Tears.

In the summer of 1838, more than 16,000 Cherokee men, women, and children were removed from their homes and put in concentration camps. Many died from disease and starvation. That autumn and winter, survivors marched from southeast Tennessee to eastern Oklahoma in three trips. This event is called Nu na da ul tsun yi, “the Place Where They Cried” (Trail of Tears). Nearly 4,000 died. Overall, more than 160,000 people from the five “civilized tribes” relocated west. Cherokees who hunted the prophet Tsali or lived on private property were allowed to live in North Carolina. Cherokee, North Carolina, is the Eastern Band’s headquarters today.

This ethnic cleansing resulted from greed and racism, as well as punishment for the Cherokees’ siding with Great Britain in the American Revolution. Their cultural assimilation, through Christianity and farming, was insufficient. White men wanted both gold (Dahlonega mine in Georgia) and land (Cherokee nation). So Georgia had no place for the Cherokees. She destroyed their press, which published the Cherokee Phoenix newspaper in English and Cherokee, and made the native language illegal. Then President Andrew Jackson (1767-1845) signed the Indian Removal Act (1830).

Emboldened by this legislation, the racist Georgia military began arresting Cherokee leaders, whether or not they lived in Georgia. Missionary Samuel Worcester (1798-1859) was arrested in Tennessee for publicly opposing the Removal Act (via the Phoenix) and living in the Cherokee nation as a white man. Chief Justice John Marshall (1755-1835) wrote the majority opinion in Worcester v. Georgia (1832), which gave the Cherokees limited sovereignty and opposed the relocation. After Worcester was set free, he and his wife relocated to Indian Territory in 1836.

trail-of-tears cherokeeAfter the Supreme Court’s ruling, Cherokees thought they could remain in their homes. However, both Jackson and Georgia refused to enforce Worcester v. Georgia; no one tried to repeal the Removal Act either. Desperate, three Cherokee leaders signed the Treaty of New Echota (1835) that stated they would go to Oklahoma. Although the Cherokees did not ratify this illegal treaty as a people, the federal government still honored it. President Martin Van Buren (1782-1862) took office in March 1838, but like Jackson he did nothing. So the U.S. military forced Cherokees in Georgia, Tennessee, and North Carolina to go to Oklahoma. Those who signed the 1835 treaty and went west were murdered in Oklahoma, considered traitors to their people.

I do not have enough Cherokee blood to claim legal heritage and none of my ancestors are in the Dawes Rolls. The word “Cherokee” still holds great reverence for me. My paternal great-grandmother, part Cherokee, was born in North Carolina. I do not know if her ancestors traveled the Trail of Tears. I learned the event’s scope only after visiting the Chief Vann state historic site in Georgia two years ago. That visit prompted much research: John Ehle’s Trail of Tears: The Rise and Fall of the Cherokee Nation (1989), We Shall Remain (2009), and websites on Cherokee history and culture.

Sadly, the Trail of Tears is just one injustice for Native American tribes in North America. We Shall Remain documents each one. So did Columbus discover America? No. Native Americans were already here. Few were treated well because they hindered the white man’s craving for gold and land. In the name of “manifest destiny,” murder of men, women, and children took place on both sides. I cannot condone murder, but what should a Native American do when other people want his land? Some tribes were nomadic, some not. Some tribes were civilized, some not. Does it matter?

native-americanI still support evangelism, since Christianity is true civilization. All people need Jesus Christ, Native Americans included. David Brainerd (1718-1747) preached to the Delaware tribe in New Jersey; his life inspired the Brainerd Mission (1817-1838) in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Still, missionaries’ “civilizing” process should not have included farming or “white” clothing. Native American children should have not been taken to white boarding schools after Custer’s Last Stand (1876) either. The feature film Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (2007) describes Charles Eastman’s experience in both worlds. Teaching English and Christianity is no excuse for removing children from their homes and refusing to let them speak their native languages. Christianity is not white culture. Although I thank God for these people’s interest in Native Americans’ eternal destiny, some did it better than others. Missionaries to Cherokees did not remove them from their homes; they also helped save the Cherokee language for posterity.

Instead of celebrating Columbus Day, I would rather teach people many perspectives of U.S. history. Minneapolis, Seattle, Hawaii, and South Dakota are doing just that by renaming the federal holiday “Indigenous People’s Day,” “Native American Day,” and “Discoverers Day” (NPR). We are a “melting pot” and our textbooks should reflect this fact. So why do only agnostic liberals celebrate cultural and ethnic diversity? The Bible says that we are “one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28, NKJV). When will Christian and/or conservative textbooks obey the memo?

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