Columbus Day or Indigenous Peoples Day? At the heart of the American identity crisis

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(RNS) – Prior to July 4 earlier this year, I wrote a column for Religion News Service on two competing plots in the stories we Americans tell about ourselves: an egalitarian narrative that draws on the affirmation of the Declaration of Independence according to which “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights”; and an ancient hierarchical tradition of domination consolidated in a 15th-century ecclesiastical doctrine known as the Doctrine of Discovery, which declared that Europeans and Christianity (often conceptualized as inseparable things) were superior to all other races and religions.

The former squarely called for the upliftment of all peoples as equal bearers of the image of God, while the latter justified the murder and enslavement of Blacks and Browns across the world, while also doing to proliferate misleading vocabulary – explorers, crusaders, settlers, founders, pioneers – this further blurs our moral vision and blurs our discussions today.

With the holiday of this Monday, we see these incompatible narratives uncomfortably juxtaposed. The official federal holiday calendar lists “Columbus Day” as one of 12 national holidays, but my Google ical feed for “Holidays in the United States” loads “Indigenous Peoples Day” above that of my. calendar.

The relatively recent development of Indigenous Peoples Day illustrates how “in medias res” we are with our contested national history. Indigenous Peoples Day was first celebrated in Berkeley, California, in 1992, on the 500th anniversary of the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the Americas. Since then, 13 states and a number of cities (including my hometown of Takoma Park, Maryland) have officially designated the second Monday in October as Indigenous Peoples Day, or Native American Day.

Map of US states, in green, that celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day (or Native American Day in the case of South Dakota) instead of Columbus Day. Courtesy Image

In the 2020 presidential election, competing vacation designations became part of the partisan drama. Joe Biden released a statement honoring Indigenous Peoples Day and hosted a virtual celebration featuring two Native American women serving in Congress and tribal leaders and Native musicians. At a campaign rally in Muskegon, Michigan – a town that stands in Odawa, Ojibwe and Potatawomi territory and takes its name from the Odawa language – Trump mocked this recognition while wearing his red hat “Make America Great Again” in front of a noisy crowd of supporters:

Joe Biden attacked Christopher Columbus by refusing to recognize Columbus Day. And he wants to change the name from Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day. Who likes this idea? Who likes this? (hoots from the crowd). What the hell are you saying? … Not while I’m president, I can just tell you (crowd cheers). This is what we are dealing with. This is what we are dealing with. The radical left is eradicating our history, and Joe Biden will let them do it.

As I noted in a previous article in The Atlantic, questioning Trump’s uses of pronouns quickly sheds light on the bigotry in his speech. Who exactly is Trump thinking of when he tells “our story”? What period in history do Trump’s nostalgic visions of American greatness refer to? In Trump, the spirit of the Doctrine of Discovery was made flesh and dwells among us.

Here is a brief summary, taken from my July 4 column on RNS, of how the Doctrine of Discovery has integrated into US policy and law:

The doctrine of discovery was used by Thomas Jefferson as president to justify the purchase of Louisiana and the mistreatment of Native Americans there. It was formally incorporated into US law in Johnson v. M’Intosh in 1823, who ruled, by unanimous decision, that the expulsion of Native Americans from their lands was justified by “the character and religion of its inhabitants … the superior genius of Europe … (and) ample compensation to (Amerindians) by granting them civilization and Christianity, in exchange for limited independence. Our continued confidence in this legal precedent was the main reason the United States was one of only four countries, out of 147, to vote against the adoption of the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples at the General Assembly of Nations. United in 2007.

To the contemporary ear, the principles of the Doctrine of Discovery seem too harsh to be said out loud, at least in mixed company. If we do not immediately deny their ordinary meaning, the temptation is to throw them in the dustbin of history, like archaic notions of a pre-Enlightenment past. But these sentiments continue to disturb both our legal traditions and our political divisions.

In August, PRRI found that three in 10 Americans agreed with this statement, which captures the heart of the Doctrine of Discovery: “God wanted America to be a new promised land where European Christians could create a company that could be an example for others. of the world.”

Notably, the majority of white evangelical Protestants (52%), Republicans (53%) and political conservatives (51%) agree with this statement. The majority of Americans who trust Fox News the most (52%) or far-right news sources such as OANN and Newsmax (67%) also agree. And there is evidence that this view of white American Christian exceptionalism is also at the root of the QAnon conspiracy movement. Almost two-thirds (65%) of Americans who affirm QAnon’s basics agree that God intended America to be a promised land for European Christians.

"God wanted America to be a new promised land where European Christians could create a society that could be an example to the rest of the world." Graphic courtesy of PRRI

“God wanted America to be a new promised land where European Christians could create a society that could be an example to the rest of the world. »Graphic courtesy of PRRI

Disturbingly, this belief in America as a divinely ordained white Christian nation – which has blessed so much brutality in our history – remains tied to denial of our past and to supporting political violence and undemocratic sentiment in the present. . Among those who agree that God intended America to be a promised land for European Christians:

  • 62% think the impact of the history of slavery and racism in the United States on life today is overstated.
  • 55% believe in the idea of ​​“replacement theory” that immigrants invade our country and replace our cultural and ethnic background.
  • 63% think Trump is a true patriot.
  • 39% – almost two in five – think true American patriots may have to resort to violence to save our country because things have gone so wrong.

In 1964, James Baldwin wrote, with keen insight, about the identity crisis Americans perpetuate by clinging to mythologies of American innocence. As Baldwin noted in “Nothing Personal”:

It is the very nature of the myth that those who are its victims, and, at the same time, its authors, should, by virtue of these two facts, be rendered incapable of examining the myth or even of suspecting, let alone of suspecting. recognize that it is a myth that controls and destroys their life … Being locked in the past means, in fact, that we have no past, since we can never evaluate or use it: and if one cannot use the past, one cannot function in the present, and so one can never be free. I consider it, as I said, the American situation in relief.

These competing, unresolved American stories come to the surface today. As we reflect on “our” heritage on Monday, may we do so with a lucid honesty that finally frees us from the grueling efforts of maintaining a mythical view of the past that prevents us from embracing a liberating and egalitarian future.

(Robert P. Jones is the CEO and Founder of the Public Religion Research Institute and the author of “White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity.” This article originally appeared on Jones’ Substack #WhiteTooLong. more at robertpjones.substack.com. The opinions expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)


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