I’ve been thinking a lot on the Dead of late. Some dead have become ancestors; another sort of the dead are those unloved, those who died far from home and were forgotten, those who suffered great injustices unrectified, the ghosts that the Chinese call hungry ghosts, and that the inhabitants of ancient Rome greatly feared. The inhabitants of that ancient city hunkered down after sundown, often with protective spells and prayers to avert the throngs of restless ghosts their haunted their violent city.
I’m hardly the first person to note that there is a miasma of unsatisfied and angry dead over the lands that presently constitute the United States of America. Not that surprising in a country whose government once offered money (bounties) to any who would turn in the severed ears, noses or genitals of its indigenous people. This leads into which dead do we honor or wish to placate? These are choices that we all have to make, and these choices are political, cannot help but be political, as well as spiritual. Some of you are aware I’m sure that some well-known members of current polytheist communities proclaim their complete apoliticalness, while at the same time pronouncing statements that are in support of the status quo. Some would honor Columbus, his genocidal impact notwithstanding, and bracket him in his era, even though his murderous brutality was not something desired by all men of his time and culture. Most importantly, though, is that his operation is still very much in effect in the Americas, not only in the US. Justice has not been done to the descendants of the genocides of the indigenous peoples of Turtle Island. Laws keep people from their sacred lands, from justice on many levels. The Doctrine of Discovery still underlies ‘legal’ justification of land theft. A number of locales have banned Columbus Day celebrations over the years, as more non-Indian people became aware that not only did he not discover America but that as governor of Hispaniola he brutally murdered over seven million Tainos.*
Glenn Morris, a member of the Leadership Council of the American Indian Movement of Colorado and professor at the University of Colorado says, “we have to ask the very simple question: why does the holiday even exist? And it exists in part to advance a national ideology of celebrating invasion, conquest and colonialism. And the proponents of the Columbus Day holiday in Colorado and Columbus parades, and so on, make no bones about the fact that they’re celebrating the colonization of the Americas and, in fact, have told us on several occasions, “Look, we’re going to have this celebration. We’re going to have these parades to Columbus. And let’s get one thing straight,” they say to us. “This is not your country anymore. This is our country now. And you’d better get with the program. http://www.democracynow.org/2006/10/6/challenging_columbus_day_denver_organizers_discuss
Counter to the argument that Columbus was just a European man of his times, Catholic priest Bartolomé de las Casas (he wrote A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies in 1542) who observed the region where Columbus was governor, described Spaniards there as driven by “insatiable greed” — “killing, terrorizing, afflicting, and torturing the native peoples” with “the strangest and most varied new methods of cruelty” in systematic violence that was aimed at destroying their culture. The Spaniards “thought nothing of knifing [American] Indians by tens and twenties and of cutting slices off them to test the sharpness of their blades”, wrote Las Casas. “My eyes have seen these acts so foreign to human nature, and now I tremble as I write”.**
Several states, including Hawaii, Alaska, and South Dakota do not have Columbus Day; Hawaii has a Discover’s Day to celebrate the Polynesian navigators who made the extraordinary ocean voyages of discovery, and South Dakota has Native American Day instead. A number of US cities have replaced Columbus Day with Indigenous People’s Day, starting with Berkeley, California in 1992, now including Santa Cruz, CA, Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota, and Seattle, Washington. Various Latin American countries have moved away from this celebration including Venezuela which celebrates an Indigenous Day, and in Argentina, Día del Respeto a la Diversidad Cultural.
For those interested in the truth of Columbus I recommend Kirkpatrick Sale’s The Conquest of Paradise, and Columbus and Other Cannibals by Native American scholar Jack Forbes.
I think it’s very important for polytheists living in countries that have benefited from colonial conquest and exploitation to be very careful about which historical ancestors they choose to honor. There is a vast train of Dead who came from the wake of Columbus’ devastation. They are worthy of honor. I also think it highly important that those of us living in countries like the United States, who want to practice contemporary polytheism as a part of our world today, need to exercise these kind of discernments.
* Ward Churchill. On the Justice of Roosting Chickens.
**Solomon, Norman (October 1995). “Columbus Day: A Clash of Myth and History