Monday was the federal holiday commemorating Christopher Columbus. But many progressive jurisdictions, encouraged by liberal activists including some church groups, have replaced it with Indigenous Peoples Day.
The reasoning is that Columbus was a European colonizer whose encounter with America led to subjection and destruction for native peoples. This theme is in sync with contemporary political correctness that demonizes Western Civilization while portraying other cultures as victims. Identity politics, which divides peoples between oppressors and victims, with almost no possibility of reconciliation or atonement, is supported by this theme.
Demonizing one culture while sacralizing all others replaces history with ideology. It also offers a spiritual mythology at odds with the Christian narrative, which insists that all peoples are equally sinners by nature. Sin is not spread by a particular culture but is intrinsic to all cultures.
Ironically, many Enlightenment era Europeans foreshadowed today’s political correctness by imagining that native peoples were sinless or at least less sinful because they were not tainted by European civilization. Their Enlightenment humanism, which rejected or minimized Christian teachings about fallen humanity, created the myth of the romanticized “noble savage.” These theorists were typically scribblers ensconced in Europe. Persons having actual contacts with native people soon realized that human nature in every culture is recognizably similar.
Of course, recognizing the historical importance of native cultures is laudable. Last year a new monument in Richmond, Virginia was dedicated to Virginia’s native peoples. It’s called “Mantle,” based in design partly on the deerskin coat, embroidered with seashells, reputedly worn by the great chief of the Powhatan Confederacy that ruled eastern Virginia when the first English arrived.
That chief, Wahunsonacock, father of Pocahontas, assembled his empire of about 30 tribes in the usual imperial way. He conquered and intimidated weaker tribes. Sometimes he exterminated enemy tribes, in what we today would call genocide. He practiced slavery. He tortured and executed when deemed necessary. His subjects played by his rules or got their heads bashed in, or maybe got burned to death.
Powhatan’s Confederacy was not a democracy. There were no protected individual rights as we understand them. Individualism itself would not be recognized. All persons were to conform to dictated tribal customs. Everybody worshiped the obligatory tribal gods communally, and practiced the tribal rites, without possibility of dissent. It was strictly hierarchical. Men were warriors and hunters, while women gardened, cooked and raised children.
If the Powhatan Confederacy existed today, it would be likened to ISIS or the Taliban. It was after all a totalitarian religious cult that enslaved, tortured and conquered enemies without any more mercy than strategically necessary. Nobody today would want to live under Powhatan.
Yet there is a new monument in Richmond, effectively honoring Powhatan, a warrior who trafficked in slaves, among other brutalities, even as other older monuments are disparaged because they honor persons complicit in slavery. This monument to native tribes belongs in Richmond. These tribes and their history should be commemorated as part of our story.
But they shouldn’t be enshrouded in hagiography and mythology, similar to the “Lost Cause” hagiography and mythology that enshrouded rising Confederate monuments in Richmond 130 years ago, in that era’s form of political correctness. Every culture and historical narrative, if honest, has a dark side, because all peoples are fallen.
The full truth, to the extent possible, should be told about Columbus, European colonization, and European civilization. But that story should not stand apart from the full narrative of other cultures with their own depravities.
Today’s critique of European civilization primarily relies, ironically, on the standards and self criticism of European civilization. Nobody today wants really to abandon that civilization to return to native cultures of past centuries. For all its moral failures, European Civilization, informed by the legacy of biblical religion and the Hebraic Deity, exceptionally has sought a sustainable vision of human equality and dignity.
Columbus the man combined courage and mendacity. But providentially, the civilization in the Americas that his discoveries facilitated ultimately offered hope and opportunity to hundreds of millions in ways that Powhatan’s Confederacy never could have.