by Sandra L. Bigtree and Philip P. Arnold
On a recent zoom call, my colleague Michael Chaness expressed his surprise that the murder of George Floyd would be the galvanizing catalyst to unite young Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) around the demand to finally take down statues that have symbolized their oppression since the founding of this country. Demonstrators have made direct associations between social justice issues today and the symbolic “myth-history” of this nation that statues in public places often imply. These historical narratives have had direct bearing on the monetary economy that justified the near extermination of Native Americans, the exploitation of land, and the enslavement of Africans.
Now, as we witness a seismic shift in our growing diverse citizenry, the old narratives of conquest, domination, and Manifest Destiny are no longer tolerated so easily. People in the streets want amended narratives that not only include BIPOC, but also acknowledgement for the rights of Mother Earth.
In this short piece we address the relationship between justice for the real, physical conditions of BIPOC and the removal of the symbolic representations and narratives that memorialize oppression and celebrate the terror of history.
Civil religion and the nation-state
In his “Sociology of Religion,” Max Weber first explored the ideas of “civil religion” as a way of understanding the religious dimensions of a nation-state by its citizenry. Symbols, grand architecture, and founding narratives are what drive people to unite and identify with the State. Civil religion posits that the state can, in actuality, stand in as a deity or a sacred reality.
This idea of religion is particularly applicable to the United States, which was founded on the notion of “unity,” and has remained more an ideological construct than a material reality because of its diverse population, ethnically, culturally, racially, religiously, etc. This was further abstracted by a new and powerful monetary economy based on the exploitation of the land that was deemed to be terra nullius, “nobody’s land.”
Although African, Asian, and Latinx Americans have fought alongside Women to be included in the American experiment, Indigenous Peoples want to remain separate as sovereign nations, have their original treaties honored, and “Mother Earth” to be protected. Have we now arrived at a place where an intolerance of American diversity and the disconnection to land is finally, literally killing our economy? Is it necessary to change the myth-history of the United States to ensure viability of our future?
Removing Columbus matters
Removing Columbus from our national narrative matters. Although he never landed on the shores of what is now the United States, the founding narrative of this country begins with Columbus. Columbus embodies the “Age of Discovery” and world domination, which justified Native American genocide and land theft. That narrative is American history, it’s in our history textbooks, and his heroic image is reproduced in statues and murals all over U.S. governmental institutions, including the center of democracy at the U.S. Capitol. Since the 1992 Quincentenary of Columbus’s early voyage, however, research has revealed Columbus was not the mythical hero we learned of in school, but an iconic figure of oppression and genocide.
Columbus was arrested after his third voyage for “tyranny and brutality” and was sent back to Spain in irons to serve his sentence. A recently discovered report of his crimes of brutality recount a slaughter of an Indigenous community where he paraded their dismembered bodies throughout the city streets. Columbus was more than a “flawed human being,” as suggested by New York Governor Cuomo, but rather a mass-murderer—one not even tolerated by the standards of his time. He was jailed by the same juridical system that was responsible for the Inquisition, one of the most bloody judicial systems in human history.
More important, Columbus was sailing under the auspices of what is now known as the Doctrines of Christian Discovery (DoCD). In a series of fifteenth-century Papal edicts, Christian explorers were mandated to enslave non-Christians, seize their lands and property, for the express purpose of expanding the Christian Empire (Christendom). Portuguese and Spanish sailors invaded West Africa and the Americas. These trips funded the Church’s exploits in their quest for world domination. The DoCD persists today as a foundational aspect of law that continues to oppress Indigenous Peoples here and throughout the world.
Today, there is growing momentum to remove Columbus from the American narrative. New evidence reveals he was not even the first to arrive on these shores, for other travelers preceded him from Europe, Asia, and Africa. But what changed with Columbus? How can someone discover a continent with millions of people, and with cities that not only thrived but rivaled any city-state in Europe? What does Columbus symbolize?
Columbus issued forth the “Age of Discovery,” which initiated not only the trans-Atlantic slave trade, but justified the Christian authority to seize Indigenous lands, possessions and personhoods. Today, this plays out around the world in the name of economic development. Every new law student learns that the DoCD is the underlying principle of United States International law, which has been upheld in US Supreme Court decisions, beginning in 1823 with Johnson v. M’Intosh. Chief Justice John Marshall utilized the DoCD by attaching the title of discovered lands to the reigning Christian governmental institutions. This code of domination considered Indigenous Peoples as inferior.
Since 1823 the DoCD has been used to justify genocidal activities and forced assimilation policies through Christian conversion, coerced sterilization of women, the dissolution of culture through boarding schools, the implementation of BIA systems of governance, and more. The DoCD governs Federal Indian Law today, which undermines the original treaties made between the United States and Indigenous Nations. The DoCD has been cited as recently as 2005 in the City of Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation of New York.
Columbus is the face of this domination code, and is synonymous with theft of Indigenous Peoples lands, cultures, and the destructive commodification of the natural world. The Columbus legacy stands in direct opposition to the democratic values we were taught in school, which were espoused as being the founding principles of the United States.
Columbus in Syracuse, New York—the heartland of the Haudenosaunee
We live in Syracuse, New York, where a particularly egregious representation of Columbus stands brazenly upon 4 disembodied Indian heads, which look to the four directions. Columbus gazes west, through the city’s Catholic Cathedral, and is backed from behind by the Syracuse Court House. The crowning insult is that the obelisk upon which he stands, splits through a white stone canoe, which represents the vessel that over 1,000 years ago carried the Haudenosaunee’s Peacemaker who delivered the message of peace at the shore of Onondaga Lake—which is located only 3 miles from where this Columbus stands.
This statue was erected in 1934 with the financial help of Benito Mussolini, the renown fascist dictator of Italy. Having just come out of the Depression, the Italian American community of Syracuse reached out to Mussolini to help assure its delivery. He not only agreed to pay shipment, but also had the statue enlarged, with the stipulation that “Cristoforo Columbo, Discoverer of America” be prominently displayed. This was a difficult period in history, for Italian Americans were suffering abusive racism. Celebrating Columbus as an Italian hero, and holding his legacy as a crucial role in the American narrative, could possibly accord them a more equitable place in society, but this was a fabrication of what Columbus actually represented—he was not a hero.
On “Columbus Day” 2020, Syracuse Mayor Ben Walsh announced that the statue would be coming down. This came in response to three changes in the political landscape. First, in June 2020, as a response to Black Lives Matter (BLM) demonstrations following George Floyd’s murder, Syracuse University Religion M.A. student Blake Garland-Tirado created a Change.org petition to remove the Columbus Circle statue whose circumference is flanked by the Syracuse Court House and the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. To date the petition has garnered almost 19,000 signatures. Second, the collaboration of BLM with Indigenous groups on the SU campus resulted in a major demonstration at Columbus Circle on Saturday 27 June 2020. Third, soon afterward the Mayor convened a “Columbus Statue Action Committee.” This 24-member committee comprised primarily of the Haudenosaunee and Italian Americans. In the end they delivered a highly divided conclusion from which Mayor Walsh made his decision.
As he stated, “This space should be both a tribute to Italian Americans and a place of healing at which we celebrate our shared accomplishments. . . .This decision is based on the fact that we can honor our Italian American community without focusing on a statue that has become the source of division over decades and overshadowed the original intent of the monument.” The Italian community has organized to resist the Mayor’s decision and have mounted a public outreach campaign. Other Italian Americans who are in favor of bring the statue down have likewise been involved in a letter writing campaign. The Columbus statue continues to be a flash-point for ongoing culture wars locally.
From our evaluation, however, Mayor Walsh’s decision in removing the statue, but keeping the narrative only continues to foster division, not healing. Without rectifying the erroneous histories of domination that have plagued the American psyche, there is no possibility for unity. Ironically Syracuse sits in the homeland of the Haudenosaunee, the Indigenous Peoples whom had united in peace (undergirded through the regenerative relationship to the natural world) for over 1,000 years and inspired Western Democracy. These are the bedrock values that really underlie this American identity. Time is of the essence to embrace these ancient foundational tenets to democracy that foster peace, and quit celebrating the settler-colonial models of domination that foster divisions.
Indigenous origins of western democracy and the Haudenosaunee
Syracuse, NY, sits in the unceded territory of the Onondaga Nation, which is the “Central Fire” of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy (the colonized names include “Six Nations” or “Iroquois”). Over 1,000 years ago at Onondaga Lake (near Syracuse) the “Peacemaker” delivered the original instructions which unified 5 warring nations under the Great Binding Peace. The epic story involved the help of Hiawatha, and the Mother of Clans, Jigonsaseh, who helped transform the most feared and powerful sorcerer, Tadodaho into the central figurehead of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy.
This Great Binding Peace of the Haudenosaunee, or Longhouse tradition, established what we would now call a radical democratic matrilineal society rooted to the laws of nature. This tradition is still practiced at Onondaga, where the development of a good mind is foundational to this peace, which can only be established when human beings are in proper relationship with the natural world. Ceremonies are all based on gratitude. “Chiefs” are called Royanie, or “men of the Good Mind” and are chosen by Clan Mothers. At the Lancaster Treaty of 1744, and the Albany Plan of Union in 1754, Haudenosaunee leaders shared the Peacemaker’s original instructions, delivered over 1,000 years ago, on how to unite in a lasting peace, and demonstrated how five arrows bundled together and bound by the sinew of a deer (leader of animals) makes the union impervious to breakage.
Finding inspiration from these teachings, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson incorporated the metaphor of the Peacemaker’s arrows into the Presidential Seal of 1782, using 13 arrows. In 1988, acknowledgement was made when the US Congress passed a resolution acknowledging Iroquois contributions to American Democracy. Throughout the nineteenth century, Haudenosaunee clanmothers (partnered title holders to her chosen male Royanie) met with early Suffragists in Upstate New York. Haudenosaunee influences on Western Democracy and the Women’s Movement are two examples of the how Indigenous values have transformed the world.
Few realize that these Indigenous roots made western democracy unique to the world. The split houses, and systems of checks and balances came from the Haudenosaunee. Granted many of the fundamental tenets of the Great Binding Peace, like the role of Women, and the special relationship with the natural world became obsolete, the “bundled arrows” metaphor was nevertheless still incorporated into the Presidential Seal in 1782, and later appearing on US currency.
Seven years later, in 1789, one of the first acts of the House of Representatives was to incorporate another “bundle” to represent the Sergeant of Arms. This image known as the fasces, relates to the Roman Empire’s iconic bundle of rods that encircled a single hatchet, representing authoritarian governance. The fasces later came to represent Mussolini’s Fascism Movement, and most recently was displayed on shirts worn by the Proud Boys during the January 6, 2021 assault on the U.S. Capitol. Although the meaning behind the actual icons often go unnoticed, others do know and are propelled by their representation. One has to wonder why, during the rise of fascism, the icon was incorporated into the Lincoln Memorial. Perhaps it’s time to discuss what these conflicting iconographies represent and choose which way forward will prove viable for our collective future on this Earth.
In creating the Skä·noñh—Great Law of Peace Center it was crucial to present for the first time a clear Haudenosaunee voice that was unhindered by the colonial narrative. We’ve all been inundated with colonial stories that omitted all the voices that had been intentionally silenced, as a means of recreating sanitized false histories. Indigenous Peoples have always spoken, and now more than ever, everyone needs to listen. The Founding Fathers saw great potential in the Haudenosaunee’s Great Binding Peace, and we need to revisit these ancient teachings to once again help steer us back toward a more equitable future where humankind and our extended relatives of the natural world can flourish.
The Columbus code of domination obstructs any reconsideration of values that underlie a healthy economy. Economic potential is compromised when so much has been excluded from our shared history. Excising the Haudenosaunee, and other BIPOC from our common heritage diminishes us all and makes it much less likely that we will ever thrive again as a united nation. Incorporating an Indigenous voice into the narrative of the United States has been met with tremendous opposition. Contextualizing Columbus, and all forces that celebrate a colonial legacy (such as statues erected in central city squares), is a good first step in absolving grief and recovering the loss. There is still much to learn from the Indigenous Peoples who greatly influenced our lives on this planet. The economy is made stronger by connecting with ancient principals of regeneration over domination. The iconic narrative of Columbus leads to a dead end.
All work at The Commons is published under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/
Sandy Bigtree, Bear Clan, is a citizen of the Mohawk Nation at Akwesasne. She is board member of the Indigenous Values Initiative; co-edited the Neighbors of the Onondaga Nation (NOON) educational booklet; and was an original Planning Committee member of Skä•noñh—Great Law of Peace Center. In 1984-85 she worked for the Native American Rights Fund in Boulder, CO. In 1980-82 she was a member of Native Americans in the Arts theatre troupe at LaMama, NYC. From age 1-30, Sandy performed weekly on radio, TV and other venues around CNY and The Sandy Bigtree Band was well known throughout the 1970s. In 2008, Sandy was the recipient of the Syracuse New Times “Hall of Fame” Sammy Award.
Philip P. Arnold is Associate Professor and Chair of the Religion Department at Syracuse University; and Founding Director of the Skä·noñh—Great Law of Peace Center. His latest book is Urgency of Indigenous Values and the Future of Religion (Syracuse University Press, 2022). He established the Doctrine of Discovery Study Group (www.doctrineofdiscovery.org), and Indigenous Values Initiative (www.indigenousvalues.org), and is a co-editor of the Syracuse University Press series “Haudenosaunee and Indigenous Worlds.” (https://press.syr.edu/haudenosaunee/ )