Of Peace and Politics

Why FCNL Is Coming to Work On Columbus Day

By Damian Morden-Snipper on 10/01/2012 @ 11:07 AM

Tags: Domestic, Native American

In my second week at FCNL, sitting nervously in my first staff meeting, wondering what working at a Quaker organization would be like, I was told something surprising: we do not celebrate Columbus Day. Unlike the federal government, we will be coming in to work as usual on October 8. As a Quaker organization, we choose not to honor Christopher Columbus – the man responsible for the deaths of millions of Native Americans and the theft of their land – with a holiday.

I was happy that we would not be celebrating such a legacy – and relieved to know that we would have another day off in October to compensate for working on Columbus Day.

But why, I wondered, did FCNL feel so strongly about something that happened so long ago? I remember learning in college that a series of papal bulls issued in the 15th century ordered Spanish and Portuguese conquerors like Columbus to expand their respective empires by taking land in the Americas and West Africa, converting to Christianity or killing the native people they encountered there.

What I didn’t know is that the church documents that gave these conquerors a religious command to expand the Christian empire went on to become a legal justification, known as the Doctrine of Discovery, for the dominance and subjugation of indigenous people for centuries to come. I didn't know, in other words, that this Doctrine of Discovery has influenced the relationship between the United States and native peoples to this day.

Background research

FCNL’s policy on Columbus Day made me curious, so I started doing a bit of reading. I found out that the Spanish and Portuguese conquerors drew their authority to conquer from the divine word of God, through the Pope. Although the papal bulls applied only to Spain and Portugal, the British colonists in North America believed in a similar God-given right to conquer, which they called their Manifest Destiny. This belief gained legal legitimacy through the U.S. Supreme Court in 1823 when Chief Justice Marshall stated that all colonial powers possessed the right to take the land they “discovered” – not just Spain and Portugal. The native tribes, said Chief Justice Marshall, merely occupied the land but did not have ownership rights.

This mentality of domination has not disappeared. The United States has broken treaties and gone to war with Native Americans. It has engaged in violent and oppressive imperial ventures overseas in places like the Philippines. It has marginalized – and continues to marginalize – Native Americans economically and politically. And it continues to make references in court cases to the supreme sovereignty of the United States government (as recently as 2005). These all attest to the continued influence of the Doctrine of Discovery. In other words, non-indigenous governments like the United States use the Doctrine of Discovery, now a part of international law, as a way to claim legitimate control over indigenous lands and people all over the world.

What Columbus Day means

When I was younger, my mother repeatedly told me and my brother that “just because you come to my house doesn’t mean you discovered my house!” It sounds absurd to say that a person who comes to your house has discovered your house, and downright wrong to say that they then have a divine right to take your house, convert or kill you, move your family far away from the land on which they have lived for generations, and marginalize your descendants for centuries. Yet this is what the United States has done, and this is the legacy behind Columbus Day.

Three Quaker meetings that I know about (Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, Baltimore Yearly Meeting, and New York Yearly Meeting) have formally repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery, recognizing its immoral nature and its insidious effects. The U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues has called on states to repudiate the Doctrine. FCNL makes a statement on the Doctrine of Discovery by refusing to celebrate Columbus Day. While coming in to work on October 8 does not address the consequences of centuries of oppression by the United States, I am happy to participate in at least making a public statement about what is right and what is wrong.

Correction: The piece originally stated that New England Yearly Meeting had passed a minute repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery, when in fact the Meeting had agreed to explore the possibility of doing so - but had not passed a minute.


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