Mackinac Island and Columbus Day

Columbus statue

“For American Indians, Columbus Day is not a typical holiday.  We don’t celebrate 500 years of being dominated, exploited, enslaved and nearly exterminated by Europeans.  But we do celebrate our survival.”  Diana King, teacher Waubun High School, Minnesota

Before last week, of the two names in the title, I only knew Columbus.  But last week, Denise and I visited Mackinac Island.  The island is located in the straits between Lake Michigan and Lake Huron.  In 1898 cars were banned on the island.  Today all travel is by horse, bicycle or foot.  We chose bicycle.  I can control a bike better than I can control a horse.

Fun, beautiful ride.  It was weird though watching for cars that weren’t there.  We learned that the 8 mile trek around the outskirts of the island was called, “Native American Cultural History Trail,” and is marked by 6 interpretative panels describing the Native American experience on the island.

It wasn’t pretty.  Oh, the scenery was pretty.  The story was not.  Unless you like a story of Native Americans being robbed of their land by white settlers, stripped of their language, culture and religion.

The Treaty of 1836, ceded 13,837,207 acres in the northwest portion of the Lower Peninsula and the easter portion of the Upper Peninsula to the U.S government. The treaty made it possible for the Michigan Territory to be granted statehood and admission to the Union, but it didn’t do much for the Anishinaabek Native Americans.

The U.S. agreed to pay for the land and guarantee the Native Americans permanent land and access to hunting and fishing rights.  But once the Anishinaabek representatives left Washington, Congress, reworked the treaty.  Isn’t that special?

Permanent rights to the land?  No more.   Now they had five years, after which the U.S. could forcibly remove them from Northern Michigan.

The treaty was nothing short of government-sponsored ethnic cleansing of the Anishinaabek culture.   Their social customs and languages were suppressed.  Their religion was made illegal.

“Indian Schools” arose between 1880-1935 in which the Native Americans endured “forced assimilation.”  The children were to become “civilized” in white culture, language and religion.  Failure to abandon their own language or spiritual beliefs resulted in severe punishment.

Honestly, the hard facts on those panels lessened a bit the joy of the ride.

What would we do if a foreign power invaded our community, broke their agreement with us, made the practice of our religion illegal, suppressed our customs and language?

We wouldn’t think it was right if it happened to us.  Do you think it was right that it happened to them?

Now we come to the other name in the title: Columbus.  Monday, October 9, was Columbus Day.  But many communities around the country have booted Columbus in favor of  “Indigenous Peoples Day.”

“No sensible Indian person,” wrote George P. Horse Capture, “can celebrate the arrival of Columbus.”

Columbus didn’t show much of the Jesus he claimed to follow.   Columbus’ voyages were religious missions.  He put it like this: “God made me the messenger of the new heaven and the new earth of which he spoke in the Apocalypse of St John (Rev. 21:1) after having spoken of it through the mouth of Isaiah; and showed me the spot where to find it.”

Columbus’ strategy for creating the new heaven and the new earth?  Forced conversion, rape, pillaging, slavery, genocide.

Doesn’t sound like Jesus, to me.

Bartolome de las Casas,  a young priest who participated in the conquest of Cuba and wrote a history of the Indies, agreed.  He describes the treatment of the natives: “Endless testimonies…prove the mild and pacific temperament of the natives….But our work was to exasperate, ravage, kill, mangle and destroy; small wonder then, if they tried to kill one of us now and then…The admiral, it is true, was blind as those who came after him, and he was so anxious to please the King that he committed irreparable crimes against the Indians…”

Here are some lessons I’m learning:

*Columbus left a legacy on how not to treat people.  Captain John Smith used Columbus as a role model on setting a “get-tough” policy against Native Americans in Virginia in 1624.  The Pilgrims and Puritans sold the survivors of the Pequot War into slavery in Bermuda in 1637.  Was the treatment of the Michigan Native Americans traceable to Columbus?  His legacy casts a long shadow.

What legacy am I leaving?

*Columbus was a devoted Christian.  An avid Bible-reader.  His journals are filled with references to Christ, Mary and the saints.  How then, could he treat people this way?

What in my life is inconsistent with the life of Jesus I profess to follow?

 

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“12 Years a Slave” – We Need to See This

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I watched this year’s Oscar winner for Best Picture last night – 12 Years a Slave.  It’s a powerful film based on the book by Solomon Northup, in which he recounts his experiences as a slave in Louisiana.  It’s not a feel good movie.   It’s a feel sad, feel mad movie.  It’s a movie that some want to avoid.  Who wants to to do something that makes you sad or mad?

Some are mad at the injustices that were committed against people.  Some are mad that the movie portrayed slavery in such a negative way.  Really.

It’s not a movie that you enjoy.  It’s one that you endure.   But we need to watch it.

We need to know.   The movie makes us confront the cruelty of which people are capable – yes, people who claim to follow Christ.

We need to remember.   “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  George Santayana

We need to recognize that slavery is not just history, it is the history of our country.

We need to do some serious soul-searching.  Is it possible that even though we’ve done away with slavery, the attitudes and stereotypes that surrounded it still exist? Think back to the Cheerios ad and the responses to it.

We need to look at our use and understanding of the Bible.
The Bible plays a prominent role in the movie – as it did in the days of slavery – something I’ve mentioned before.

In one scene, slave owner Edwin Epps holds a church service for his slaves and quotes the Bible, Luke 12:47, “And that servant, which knew his lord’s will, and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes.” After he reads this passage, he waves his Bible in the faces of the slaves and says, “and that’s Scripture!”

Each lash of the whip from the hand of Epps upon the back of Patsey – played by Oscar winning Lupita Nyong’o – was punctuated with Biblical justification.

Hopefully no Christian today still quotes the Bible to defend slavery.  But how many still use the method of interpreting the Bible that allowed slave owners to use the Bible as a spiritual whip.

We need to see God as the slaves saw God.  The “slavers” used their faith as a tool to control and dehumanize. The slaves used their faith to endure the degradations, indignities, and cruelties of slavery.

We need to make a “hypocrisy check.”  After Solomon arrives on the plantation, his master, William Ford, gathers the slaves and gives a sermon, quoting Luke 17:2, “It were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck and be cast into the sea, than that he should offend one of these little ones.”  We had just seen, in the previous scene, Ford buying and thus separating a female slave from her children.  We can’t miss the hypocrisy.  I should see my own hypocrisy as clearly.

We need to let the spirit of Jesus shape us – the spirit of justice, the spirit that sees each person as one made in the image of God.   The voice of justice in the movie belongs to Samuel Bass, played by Brad Pitt, a Canadian surveyor and abolitionist.  He tells Epps, “If you don’t treat them as humans, then you will have to answer for it… Laws change. Social systems crumble. Universal truths are constant. It is a fact, it is a plain fact that what is true and right is true and right for all. White and black alike.”

It is Bass’ intervention that leads to Solomon’s deliverance and return to freedom – deliverance and freedom, but not justice.  Solomon does not find justice.  Because of racist laws, he was unable to hold the men accountable who sold him into slavery. In what ways do we need to intervene?

We need to see this film because it can change us for the better.  Maybe that’s what art does.