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'Conquest' brought suffering to native peoples

By Loring Abeyta

In the Oct. 4 Denver Catholic Register article on Columbus by Father Charles Polzer, the analysis oversimplifies what is a complex and painful history that carries enduring legacies today. Columbus brought more than passions for gold and discovery. With Columbus came the seeds of institutionalized inequality in the hemisphere, directed first and most permanently at its indigenous inhabitants. From the time of Columbus's arrival, the social, political, economic, and religious structures that dominate in the hemisphere have served to suppress opposition to the original European prerogatives which were, indeed, a part of the cargo of Columbus.

In the Columbian era, the notion of the putative right of conquest was entrenched in the European mind. As Robert Williams, Jr., author of "The American Indian in Western Legal Thought: The Discourses of Conquest" (Oxford University Press, 1990), argues, the presumption that "normatively divergent non-Christian peoples could rightfully be conquered and their lands could lawfully be confiscated by Christian Europeans enforcing their peculiar vision of a universally binding natural law" was imposed upon the indigenous peoples encountered by Columbus. While other explorers had previously reached the hemisphere, the Columbus expeditions were unique in their use of systemic violence to institutionalize European domination in the region.

Beginning with the encomienda, Columbus inaugurated the systemic use of violence as a structural means for exterminating any "normative divergence" which would challenge European hegemony in the Americas. The facts of history refute Polzer's claim that "native peoples shared their lands and their wealth." Columbus initiated what has become standard procedure in the Americas: under the guise of institutionalized government policy, indigenous peoples have been systematically dispossessed of their land by various means of extermination, removal, or assimilation. Though the strategies used have run the spectrum from the overtly violent encomienda, through the more benign reduccións and New England praying towns, to the ostensibly "neutral" legality of the 1887 Dawes Act, the results have eradicated the legitimate right of the indigenous peoples of the Americas to inhabit and govern their original homelands as sovereign nations. In all cases, these results have been obtained by force rather than consent.

Polzer incorrectly asserts that native peoples unquestioningly accepted colonization. Columbus and subsequent colonizers encountered enduring native resistance to the imposition of the European vision of a "universally binding natural law." Indigenous nations were sovereign, self-determining entities with stable forms of governance, trade, and ceremonial life. Even in the face of unrelenting attempts to dominate them, they have consistently resisted complete assimilation - from the Pueblo rebellions of the seventeenth century to this year's Columbus Day Parade protest in Denver.

In these recent days of debate and conflict regarding the history of Columbus, it has been asserted that we cannot judge Columbus by modern standards of human rights and equality. How, then, do we explain that these standards were invoked by contemporaries of Columbus, such as Bartolome de las Casas, in order to denounce the abuses he perpetrated? If we are to advance a vital public dialogue regarding diversity, inclusion, and civil rights, we must have the courage to engage in our analysis at a level which is complex and uncomfortable, but which ultimately raises the discussion to systemic issues. As difficult as these last weeks have been in Denver, my hope is that, as a community, our minds are open to how the truths of history can inform our choices today.

Loring Abeyta is a Ph.D. student at the University of Denver Graduate School of International Studies and specializes in human rights issues as they pertain to indigenous peoples in the hemisphere.

This article originally appeared in the Denver Catholic Register



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