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    A Centuries-long Witness to Faith

    Columbus and Native American History

    (Photo from GettyImages)


    Excerpted from the 2020 Report of Supreme Knight Carl Anderson to the 2020 Annual  Supreme Convention

    There is one more cultural crisis that I must address. It is the vicious vandalism of statues of Christopher Columbus.

    Several years ago, when calls were made to remove the statue in New York City’s Columbus Circle, we supported the efforts of New York’s governor, and many others, to protect this historic monument.

    That statue was built not only for the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ voyage of discovery. It was paid for by Italian Americans following the 1891 murder of 11 Italian Americans in the largest mass lynching in American history.

    For Americans of Italian descent, who often experienced violence and bigotry, Columbus represented not only heroic achievement, but their own contribution, pride and legacy as Americans.

    Only a decade before the 1892 Columbus celebrations across the United States, the men who gathered in the basement of St. Mary’s Church looked to Christopher Columbus — who was regarded as a hero by most Americans — as a way to signal that Catholics were integral to the history of America from its earliest days.

    At the 1912 dedication of the Columbus monument in Washington, D.C., President William Howard Taft observed, “We are gathered here today to dedicate this beautiful memorial to the greatest mariner of history.”

    He noted, however, that Columbus “was much greater as a mariner than as an administrator and governor of native peoples. His failure in this regard,” President Taft added, “was doubtless due to a lack of preparation for the difficult problems which an assumption of control over the natives involved…. He had but few resources, and he was beset by jealousies and treachery.”

    My brother Knights, now a radical, one-sided narrative asserts that Columbus — the same man who severely punished those under his authority when they mistreated Indigenous peoples — represents all that is evil in the American experience.

    This is a disservice to the truth. We must all strive to honestly examine and faithfully remember our history. We must all give credit to what was done well in the past, and we must be mindful of what should have been done differently.

    We do not fear an honest review of the work and legacy of Columbus. Indeed, we welcome it. That is necessary. But it is not sufficient. We urge every city, state and province to undertake a public and careful review of its own treatment of the native peoples, both past and present.

    That review will find no trace of Columbus. He was not there when the Puritans in Connecticut destroyed the Pequot Nation. Nor was he there along the Trail of Tears walked by the Cherokee, or at the massacres of Sand Creek or Wounded Knee, or in the hunting down of Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce.

    Columbus never called for the “extermination” of the native people of California as did the governor of that state after gold was discovered there.

    In the mid-1800s, Alexis de Tocqueville, writing in Democracy in America, recounted the condition of the Native Americans he observed. “I was the witness of sufferings which I have not the power to portray,” he wrote, adding that the evils they suffered “appear to me to be irremediable.” He concluded, “I believe that the Indian nations of North America are doomed to perish.”

    These sufferings were not from the influence of Christopher Columbus, who never even set foot on the mainland of North America. Columbus did not influence the policies of President Jefferson and President Andrew Jackson, referred to by Tocqueville.

    Scapegoating one man for what has happened throughout the United States is easy, but it masks the real history.

    Native peoples have a right to have their story told with accuracy and integrity. They have a right to an honest recounting of their history. Only in this way can we find a path of reconciliation, healing and justice. The Knights of Columbus is prepared to walk that path with them.

    Tragedy and hardship are only one aspect of the Native American story. That story also includes a centuries-long witness of many tribes to their strong Catholic faith. As brothers and sisters in the same faith, their story is also part of our story. They, too, are part of the history of our Church in North America.

    As St. John Paul II rightly observed, “Not only is Christianity relevant to the Indian peoples, but Christ, in the members of his Body, is himself Indian.”

    Our support of the new St. Kateri Tekakwitha Shrine in Gallup, N.M., and our support for the cause of canonization of Nicholas Black Elk testify to this reality.



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