What Sol&Res Has To Do with Columbus Day

By Zachary Pullin, Soulforce Director of Online Community

When I was a kid, I remember walking into my church in Spokane, WA. It was St. Francis of Assisi and we only started going to this church because our former church, St. Patrick’s, didn’t like that my mom was divorced. The wooden pews in rows; the music team practicing hymns; the smell of damp walls and incense and old cushions; this was my church.

I went to Sunday school here and was walking on this specific day for confirmation. My confirmation name was Luke and my uncle Scott was my sponsor.

What I came to know and love about church was the community. However, as I grew to understand more about my Native American culture and history my understanding and feelings about the Church became more complex. I began to understand the ways in which the Church had been misused to colonize my people and suppress our culture. Needless to say, this dual awareness of church as a community, but also as a misused tool of oppression, became even more acute when I came out.

This is not to say that faith and church are inherently antagonistic towards LGBTQ people or indigenous populations. The relationship is complicated.

For me, I experience a modern form of colonization when I perform the sign of the cross instead of smudging, which is a common North American Indigenous persons form of spiritual cleansing; or when I recite the Our Father instead of the traditional prayer drumming song of the plains Indians. Yet these other “imposed” rituals of the Catholic faith are meaningful to me.

And what does the church where I was taught about love and community have to do with Columbus Day, a day that marked the beginning of 500 years of genocide and oppression of Native peoples in the Americas?

Glory, gold, and God: A traditional view of Columbus Day

Columbus Day was first observed in Colorado in 1906 as an official state holiday. It became a federal holiday in 1937. But, it’s important to note that much of Columbus’ journey was a quest for God, glory, and gold - not a better trade route to Asia. When the Santa Maria shipwrecked near what is today called the Bahamas, the Lucayan Natives helped save the crew and cargo. Little did they know they’d be cargo soon enough.

As an explorer, Columbus needed to show the Queen of Spain that he had “discovered” more than just a trade route but – potentially – access to gold. So, he stole 25 Lucayan Natives and took them back to Spain with him – only 7 survived the brutal voyage. In his journal, he wrote: “I could conquer the whole of them with fifty men and govern them as I pleased.”  By 1520, the Spaniards had removed all the Lucayan peoples from the Bahamas and had taken them as slaves.

So Columbus was the father of the transatlantic slave trade; we seem to forget that when we observe Columbus Day. Columbus was motivated by a belief that he and Europeans must spread the Christian faith in the Americas. But their actions in spreading this faith included depriving the Native peoples of their freedom, sovereignty, and property rights.

This was fundamentalism in action. In the Spanish Requirement of 1513 the Spanish Crown said plainly that they had the divine right to take possession of the territories of the New World and to subjugate, exploit, and when necessary, destroy the Native inhabitants. The Spaniards thus considered those who resisted as defying God’s plan, and used the Catholic faith to justify their conquest.

Think of all of the holidays we observe in the US: President’s Day, which honors leaders like Abraham Lincoln, who took the first legislative steps to free the enslaved peoples of America. Martin Luther King, Jr Day, which celebrates the legacy of the Civil Rights movement.

And…Columbus Day?

How are we conditioned to understand genocide, colonization, and fundamentalism? What are the standards by which we use to observe someone’s “legacy” as a holiday?

And, therein lies our work with Sol&Res. People of faith have to work out these complex relationships because the institutions we are connected to have often been misused. Sol&Res will examine the roots of fundamentalism and attempt to untangle the complex web of relationships between fundamentalism and perpetuation of oppression.

So, as the Father shuffled to each one in our confirmation class, “sealing” them with the holy oil, I was confused and wrestled more than I thought I would. I felt that with each step of the sacrament I made, I grew farther away from my cultural spirituality. It was the fear that I was complicit in my own spiritual colonization. It was the fear that in losing my cultural and traditional spirituality, I wouldn’t learn how to speak in the language of my people to the Great Spirit – the Creator. Our Spirits don’t speak English.