Just one piece of our civilization now under attack are monuments to Christopher Columbus, and spineless officials are letting those monuments be toppled or removed. Since the activists want to control what you think, I’ll tell you what I think about Columbus and let you decide for yourself.
By his unrelenting determination to follow his discovery instincts, Columbus made breakthroughs in the 15th century that opened the Americas to Europe and changed the world. Was he virtuous by today’s standards? Surely not, but he was an accomplished man of his time and certainly an important historical figure.
In that era, Europeans competed to discover unknown lands with rich resources, plant the flag of their King or Queen and their God, spread their religion by force and take the bounty they could steal back to the home country.
Columbus and Spaniards following in his wake unwittingly brought to the Caribbean and Americas diseases for which the natives had no innate resistance and they died in vast numbers. Spaniards used the sword and spear to kill, force religious conversion and steal a lot of gold while conquering the Aztec and the remains of the Maya in Central America, and the Inca in the Andes Mountains of South America.
But hold the apologies, tears and hand-wringing. It is worth noting these were brutal cultures centered on human sacrifice. Virtue-signaling to condemn European cruelty in arrears falls flat if you bother to engage a few brain cells, at least in this case.
Humanity’s development has always been by weapons, blood and conquest. From the earliest time of Sumerians and Egyptians, the strong overwhelmed the weak. Greeks fought off the Persians to keep their freedom and give us the roots of western civilization. Romans learned from the Greeks and spread civilized life by force to much of Europe and northern Africa. In the Dark Ages after the Roman empire collapsed, European nations and fiefdoms fought and conquered each other endlessly as they sought power, wealth, territory, revenge or to satisfy outlandish egos. History is bursting with over 14,000 wars, not counting lesser battles and conflicts.
I was reminded recently by a movie of the warts and wrinkles in our own history here in the USA. Once in a while a film is well done, telling a story with the soft touch of subtlety, touching nerves left raw by history still wrapped in myth, resentment and ignorance. Such was the case when I watched the movie “Hostiles” on my Netflix service.
The story begins in 1892 at a farm settled in the west by the Quaid family. While her husband hand-sawed wood for more building, Rosalee Quaid used a hand-held chalkboard to teach their two young girls their lessons, her infant in a crib at her feet. Suddenly a Comanche raiding party appeared and Quaid yelled to his wife to run with the kids while he held them off with a rifle. He was first hit in the leg, then scalped, run through by an arrow then killed with a pistol. The Comanche chased after the scrambling Rosalee and the two girls, shot the girls in the back but Rosalee managed to evade and hide with her infant, who was bloodied and dead, while the Comanche burned the cabin and whooped their delight.
Meanwhile, at U.S. Army Fort Berringer in New Mexico, Yellow Hawk, an aging Cheyenne war Chief, was imprisoned along with his wife, adult son, daughters and grandson. In the wars the US Army fought against various native American nations and tribes, terrible things were done on both sides and the hatred that remained ran deep.
President Harrison has ordered that Yellow Hawk, now dying with cancer, be released and escorted by the US Army back to his homeland in Montana. The Fort Commanding Officer assigns the duty to Captain Blocker, soon to retire. Capt. Blocker angrily objects to the role of Yellow Hawk’s protector, having lost so many good men in the bloody fights. Capt. Blocker relents under the pressure of consequences to his record and his pension if he fails to perform his duty, and the escort detail is organized.
When the detail has departed and is out of sight of the fort, Capt. Blocker calls a halt and puts Yellow Hawk and his family in chains. Early in the long trip, the detail arrives at the burned Quaid farm and finds Rosalee inside the burned cabin, in a vigil over the bodies of her two girls, still clutching her dead infant. When she sees Yellow Hawk and the other Cheyenne as part of Cpt. Blocker’s detail, she screams in terror. After they buried her family, she agrees to join the detail for protection.
Cpt. Blocker recognized from the arrow and how the victims were killed the raiders had been Comanche. Yellow Hawk and his son were very apprehensive and asked for arms; they explained the Comanche would surely track and attack the detail, and would take great pleasure killing Cheyenne like Yellow Hawk and his family. Cpt. Blocker did not for a moment consider giving them guns and kept them in chains.
It was not part of the story in the film, but I knew the history of America’s westward expansion and inevitable collision with native Americans, first with a trickle of pioneers, then a growing flow of wagon trains, an intrusion that puzzled and angered the people labeled “savages” by American culture. Some encounters were peaceful, some brought vicious mutilation and murder of pioneer men, women and children whether for sport, to take horses, retribution for the intrusion or just because it was their way of life.
Over time, America morphed from agrarian to industrial and produced trains and the rails they ride on. Trains took Americans west in a gathering flood, where train water and coal stops turned into small towns, rails were paralleled by poles and telegraph wires, railroad-sponsored cheap land encouraged migration, vast buffalo plains were interrupted by train rails and barbed wire to control cattle, and commercial hunters turned buffalo killing into a mass production industry.
Many different native American nations and tribes felt the collision, fought back and inevitably lost their struggle as our numbers overwhelmed them.
It is true that we pushed native Americans into small, undesirable reservations to take their land for ourselves, and we violated countless times the treaties we wrote and forced onto them. But what is not true is the romanticized notion of peaceful native American life. A history of their brutality and the wars they waged on each other long before Europeans arrived would fill a library. Here are just a few examples.
In the St. Lawrence Valley of the northeast, the Iroquois in the 17th century drove out the Huron, Petun, Erie and Sisquehannock tribes, taking territory for themselves by conquest, as it has always been. Those same Iroquois provided their eager young men rites of passage to warrior by traveling on foot all the way down to the Carolinas to wage war on “Flatheads,” their term for the Chickasaw, Choctaw and Cherokee, raids to take slaves and prisoners to torture.
Back in their home villages, a young man was celebrated if he brought a captive for the village boys and women to torture by tying to posts, pulling off fingernails, burning with red-hot iron, cutting off ears, noses and other things, inflicting pain in horrible ways while keeping them alive, a ritual in which the captive could prove his or her brave endurance as a tribute to those killed in battle. Many native American nations and tribes had similar practices, and some honored a captive who took a long time to die by eating their heart.
Raids, wars, taking slaves and prisoners to torture was a way of life for many tribes. The Apache in the Southwest and the Utes in Colorado are thought to have been first to use the Spanish gift of horses, changing their lives completely. With more mobility, the Utes stepped up raids on Apache, Pueblo and Navaho, with stealing horses now a raid incentive as important as taking slaves and captives to torture. As they fought each other, and increasingly fought the white man coming from the east, the plains tribes of Lakota (Sioux), Shawnee, Shoshone, Arapaho, Cheyenne, Comanche and others relished the practice of taking scalps, and had become highly accomplished horsemen.
Because they lost young men in battle, and because Comanche women rode horses a great deal and suffered a high rate of miscarriage, sometimes Comanche adopted and treated as their own selected captives to fill diminishing ranks of their tribe.
The Pawnee fought the Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho for a very long time. The Comanche, possibly the most fierce warriors ever, anywhere, preyed on the Tonkawa, Nadaco, Cheyenne, Shawnee and other tribes, and later focused on the easy target of white people as they traveled from the plains to Texas on raids. The Apache preferred to make war on the Spanish, Mexicans and Americans.
The Kiowa fought with the Comanche against the Osage, Pawnee, Cheyenne and Arapaho.
The Lakota (Sioux) had been pushed by the Anishnaabe and Cree onto the Great Plains, and it was Lakota Chief Crazy Horse who led his Sioux along with Arapaho and Northern Cheyenne to destroy Custer and his men at the Little Bighorn.
These are just selected examples, leaving out many others, to make the point “Indians” were not monolithic and each nation or tribe had their own culture and history of conflicts, conquests and defeats.
So in the film story, the Cheyenne Chief Yellow Hawk and his son had very good reason to fear what the Comanche raiding party would do to their family. When the Comanche raiding party did attack the detail, Yellow Hawk and his son fought and helped kill some of them while still in chains and the Cheyenne women and young boy hid in terror, just as Rosalee had at her farm.
As the journey progressed, the soldiers, the Cheyenne and Rosalee developed a grudging respect for each other, and Capt. Blocker removed the chains and gave the Cheyenne weapons, for protection and to show his trust. At the end of their journey, they had a fondness for one another, and before they parted Yellow Hawk dies, they bury him, and Rosalee takes his grandson to live with her. In the end, it is a story of redemption and people finding a connection across deep divides.
My thoughts were that many of us who have been to war had occasion to be weary of the killing, and perceived even as young men that if we had a chance to talk one on one with our enemy long enough to know them, we might find common ground despite our differences. Too bad that had not been possible.
Finally, I thought of the naive protestors waging war on Columbus and our society, and the irony that America’s protection and plenty gave them the chance to stare at their own bellybutton long enough to sharpen their grievances. If they tire of fighting Columbus and try to reconcile all of humanity’s past conflicts, resentments and unrequited revenge, that could keep them busy for at least a thousand years.
[Terry Garlock writes occasional opinion columns for The Citizen. firstname.lastname@example.org]