On October 12, 1993, I sat in my first-grade classroom with a mountain of Popsicle sticks on my desk. I had just been taught that Columbus was a super great guy, and we would be building models of the Pinta and Santa Maria out of the sticks. Because he was very brave and knew he was right about the earth being flat, the lesson went, he sailed all the way across the Atlantic Ocean and “discovered” America. I raised my hand. “If Columbus had never come here, my family would still have our land.”
The fight to change the elementary school version of Columbus’ story isn’t just a symbolic fight. For us as Native Americans, it is the fight to reject the incredibly racist legal framework under which we still live. The same 15th-century doctrine that allowed Columbus to “discover Hispanola” (and gave his army license to rape, murder, and enslave Taino people) is the basis of U.S. federal Indian policy today. The Doctrine of Discovery has been cited in Supreme Court Cases as recently as 2005 and by 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in 2014.
While the international Indigenous community has been calling for the denouncement of the Doctrine of Discovery for decades, most Americans don’t even know what it is. It first appeared in 1455 as a papal bull giving Portugal permission to invade and colonize West Africa. After Columbus’s infamous voyage to the Caribbean, a similar papal bull was extended to Spain in 1493.
The Doctrine of Christian Discovery asserted simply that Christian Nations became the rightful owner of any land they found occupied by non-Christian people. Europeans used this international law, grounded in the racist presumption of European superiority, to colonize most of the earth. What followed was the kidnapping and enslavement an estimated 12.5 million African people and the systematic genocide of an estimated 90 million indigenous people (90 percent of the pre-genocide population of the Americas). In 1982, when Spain proposed to the UN General Assembly that the 500-year anniversary of Columbus’s voyage should be marked by celebration, the entire African delegation walked out.
The Doctrine of Discovery was codified into U.S. law by the Supreme Court the same decade my tribe was forcibly removed from our homelands to “Indian Territory” on the “Trail Where They Cried”, now known as the Trail of Tears. In the 1832 Johnson v. M’Intosh decision, Supreme Court Chief Justice Marshall wrote that “discovery gave title to the government” and that “the Indigenous inhabitants were then left with only a ‘right of occupancy,’ which United States courts have ruled, could be terminated at will by the federal government.” In other words, Native people are tenants.
As recently as 2005, Justice Ginsberg — a liberal icon of the left — cited the Doctrine of Discovery in City of Sherrill v. Oneida Nation of Indians, stating that the Oneida Indian Nation could not exert sovereignty over land within their 1794 treaty territory the tribe had bought back. In the first footnote of her decision Ginsberg cites the Doctrine of Discovery stating “…the lands occupied by Indians when the colonists arrived became vested in the sovereign – first the discovering European nation and later the original States and the United States.”
The attack on tribal sovereignty and the diminishment of the rights of Native Nations has real and current consequences for the lives of Native people. Today, four out of five Native women in the U.S. will be raped, stalked, or abused in their lifetime, and one in three of us are raped, stalked, and abused every year. The majority of perpetrators (9 out of 10) are non-Native, but because of a Supreme Court decision that cited the doctrine of discovery (Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe, 1978), Native Nations are prohibited from prosecuting non-Natives who commit crimes on our lands.
My tribe, Cherokee Nation, has its own constitution, citizens, land, and government. Our right to self-govern pre-dates the existence of the United States. Our right to our land pre-dates the creation of the Supreme Court, the Constitution, and even Columbus. In Christian mythology, humans were kicked out of the Garden of Eden. Our creation story tells us how the mountains where we lived were first formed. We were living in our Eden at the time when Europeans came to claim it.
When discussing the genocide of Native Americans, the most important thing to remember is that it didn’t work: We are still here. As the late Wilma Mankiller, principal chief of Cherokee Nation from 1985 to 1995 stated, “One of the most powerful countries in the world as a policy first tried to wipe us off the face of the earth. And then, failing that, instituted a number of policies to make sure that we didn’t exist… as a culturally distinct group of people, and yet here we are. Not only do we exist, but we’re thriving and we’re growing, and we’re learning now to trust our own thinking again and dig our way out.”
I am currently working with leaders from the Baltimore American Indian Center and Native American Lifelines to change the name Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day in Baltimore. When we sit down with our City Council representatives, we hand them a fact sheet detailing Columbus’ known abuses. In his own journals, Columbus graphically describes raping indigenous women and sex-trafficking children (“those from nine to ten are now in demand.“) His men would cut of the hands of Taino people who did not bring them the required amount of gold, tying their severed hands around their necks. Within 50 years of Columbus landing on the island, 95 percent of the Taino population had died. A genocide.
Last week, an Italian-American man told me flatly I was wrong about Columbus, because the man holds a Ph.D in history. After the Nazi holocaust, Germany passed laws that prohibited denying that genocide happened. In contrast, in the United States, people are still afraid to confront the truth about this country’s own genocide of Native Americans. The laws that limit our rights as Native people and Native Nations are only possible in a country whose public denies what has happened to us.
Rebecca Nagle is a citizen of Cherokee Nation and a writer and organizer living in Baltimore.