This past weekend was Columbus Day, named for Christopher Columbus (born (Christoforo Columbo in Genoa, Italy) who, sailing for the King of Spain, discovered the New World, by landing in the Bahamas. But there was a problem.
Not for Columbus or for his patron or the continent from which he came. The problem was for people of a later time, and in most cases, fairly recently, and can be summed up in a single question that was both philosophical as well as moral and which would have a long lasting impact – namely, How can a place be discovered when it’s already inhabited and has been for thousands of years?
It was no secret, of course, to Columbus and other early explorers – John Cabot (Giovanni Caboto), Samuel Champlain, Captain John Smith and many others – that the land they ‘discovered’ had people living on it. So we may wonder – what gave them the right to claim it as their own?
The answer lies in the Papal Bull “Inter Caetera,” issued by Pope Alexander VI on May 4, 1493, just a year after Columbus’s ‘discovery.” The Bull (or edict) stated that any land not inhabited by Christians was available to be “discovered,” claimed, and exploited by Christian rulers and declared that “the Catholic faith and the Christian religion be exalted and be everywhere increased and spread, that the health of souls be cared for and that barbarous nations be overthrown and brought to the faith itself.”
This “Doctrine of Discovery” became the basis of all European claims in the Americas as well as the foundation for the United States’ western expansion. In the US Supreme Court in the 1823 case Johnson v. McIntosh, Chief Justice John Marshall’s opinion in the unanimous decision held “that the principle of discovery gave European nations an absolute right to New World lands.” In essence, Native Americans had only a right of occupancy, which could be abolished.
We all know what happened next. Indigenous peoples (or, in Canada, The First Nation) were eventually overwhelmed by the ever-increasing flood of settlers, particularly during the 17th century, a period of great turmoil and conflict in Europe. In our part of the world, those tribes affected included the Abenaki, Maliseet, Micmac, Passamaquoddy, and Penobscot.
This displacement of cultures, however, began with an interest in trade.
As Charles C. Mann writes in his book 1491:
“[By 1621] Europeans had been visiting New England for at least a century. Shorter than the natives, oddly dressed, and often unbearably dirty, the pallid foreigners had peculiar blue eyes that peeked out of the masks of bristly, animal-like hair that encased their faces. They were irritatingly garrulous, prone to fits of chicanery, and often surprisingly incompetent at what seemed to Indians like basic tasks. But they also made useful and beautiful goods – copper kettles, glittering colored glass, and steel knives and hatchets – unlike anything else in New England. “
These newcomers had to live somewhere, and that meant their focus shifted from trade to land, and soon even the land ran out, forcing Native Peoples to move ever further away from their ancestral homelands and attempt to preserve what they could of their identity and lifestyle. Treaties were made and broken, villages and forts were attacked and burned, and finally the sheer preponderance of Europeans with their different languages, customs, religion and values as well as a frequent air of superiority were simply too many and too much in too many different places.
Yet the Native American way of life had much to recommend. They were self-sufficient and independent.. They were respectful of the environment and were careful to conserve its resources. They viewed themselves as an integral part of nature and sought to be in harmony with it rather than exert control or dominance. When they hunted for food, it was with reverence for the lives of animals whose bodies provided sustenance as well as clothing and tools.
Contrast that respect for other living creatures with the present time when animals are killed en masse in slaughterhouses or shot as trophies by big game hunters or abused or mistreated in ways almost too numerous to list.
Surely Pope Alexander VI’s phrase ‘barbarous nation’ seems more applicable to what Europeans have created than the practice of Native Peoples. The comparison between these two cultures may well cause us to reflect on ways in which we can still learn from and respect the original inhabitants whom we have displaced and against whom we still discriminate.
It’s not an inappropriate activity as we observe another Invasion From Away Day.