Remembering Columbus Day Differently

Defeat As a Way of Life

Ian Olson / 10.11.22

I’m still not sure why schools and the post office get the day off but I, an honest-to-badness native American, get stuck at work on Columbus Day, but I guess that’s fitting given what the day memorializes. I have no doubt anymore that the outrage that some people feel regarding Columbus Day is performative, serving primarily as a marker of enlightenment and righteousness, differentiating the good guys from the bad, the “arc of justice” sweeping over the soon to be forgotten flotsam of the sordid and stupid present.

But all the people who high five each other when a sports team’s mascot is changed while native Americans remain consigned to crummy living conditions, lousy school and work opportunities, and an atmosphere of hopelessness marked by substance abuse and suicide can keep their perfunctory “support.” Because in essence this amounts to the upheaval and dismay that characterizes the last four hundred years of my people’s history being commandeered to serve as a weapon in a clash of ideologies that materially has little to do with that people. Which again, is typical. If there’s one thing with which we are all too acquainted it is something of ours being captured and utilized for someone else’s benefit. So it goes.

The relocation, forced assimilation, and near extermination of my people are grievances rooted in history and, beyond that, in the reception of that history. It is appalling that anyone would consider it morally proper to tell anyone or any group to “just get over” any injustice that has occurred, much less one that has been recast and canonized as something commendable and good. But it is almost as infuriating that anyone would make a pretense of concern but leave the core of our predicament intact and all the while go on enjoying the privileges that distinguish them from those who are suffering. 

I am someone who is only relatively recently embracing the fact that I am Native American. There has never been a time when I was not Native American, but I have become painfully aware over the last eight years or so of how, for much of my life, I have pushed that aspect of who I am to the periphery in my efforts to be what I, at some point, had accepted as “rational.” 

Ask me what that amounted to back then and I probably would have answered that it was a universally accessible mode of interfacing with the world, one uncontaminated by interests or particular characteristics. It took years for me to recognize that such a thing wasn’t possible: that reason only ever responds to this place among these people, takes into consideration and works with what is available to it; that the supposedly “universal” rationality I esteemed looked suspiciously Northern European in its details as I dismissed in advance the possibility of there being much worth learning from a people who had never produced a Bach or a Hegel or a Monet.

During that time I argued in ways that now make me cringe because of the ways I had, without intending it, rhetorically squashed the significance of people’s social, ethnic, and economic location as it touched their problems and needs. I tacitly reduced most dilemmas to individual moral failings because I couldn’t recognize the importance of formation in a particular habitus or the lasting consequences of history and amounted, therefore, to another voice, oblivious to the advantages it had received, demanding others hurry up and elevate themselves by their own power — a power the gospel assures us none of us have on our own.

But now I also recognize that it was never really about suppressing “part of who I am” as there is nothing inherent to genealogy that habituates anyone to understand the world or their role within it simply by being born. After all, I hadn’t grown up on the reservation, hadn’t experienced the hardship that shaped my mother’s family or formed the background that set them apart from everyone I grew up around. In fact, when my mom would take us there to visit family, what I observed was similar to much of what I saw back home: watching TV, playing outside when grown-ups are yelling, wishing you were somewhere else, doing anything else. The difference, I think, is that there wasn’t the naivete of my friends back home, for we were a people who had grown accustomed to defeat as a way of life.

The aspects of identity that really matter aren’t checkboxes on censuses or hashtags on social media but the awareness of sharing a vocation with others. Not group identification and gatekeeping, but practices and markers of belonging. These had been taken from us over the centuries and habituation within the American Dream™️ had furthered that desiccation of our vocation. What was now definitional for this people was having to exist after that theft. And while I belonged — that was never in doubt with my family — it was in a distinct way, as I wasn’t a partaker of the pool of common experience that they all were. I couldn’t shake my head and say, “I know, I know,” to another Indian’s pain. I knew it at secondhand, could attest that it was real to others who had no idea, but as a witness, not a participant. 

For which I should be thankful, because there’s nothing automatic, either, about suffering producing character. Indians are fallen, too, and as liable to bitterness, hopelessness, and other vices in our maladaptive efforts to survive. There is nothing intrinsically more noble about us that safeguards us from becoming abusers and revilers ourselves. None of us should be naïve and imagine pre-Columbian America being a docile utopia of natives getting along beautifully in some prelapsarian paradise. It just ain’t so. Remember the Aztecs? There is a case in point of a societal structure manufactured around the bloodlust of the principalities and powers. The numbers of dead they were responsible for are shocking, and the brutality dealt out in those deaths is the stuff of torture porn. So no, there was not an Edenic uniformity covering the North American continent prior to 1492, but that in no way justifies what followed over the next four centuries.


So while I don’t want to sink into the quicksand of perpetually being triggered by any and all things, that’s not what disquiet regarding this day is about. For how can one deny a basic insensitivity to the historical and intergenerational trauma that characterizes around five million Americans? That’s a low number, I grant — less than two percent of the United States population — but, you know, that has something to do with diseases brought by colonists ravaging their original population and the systematic assimilation and ethnic cleansing that followed. So no, we’re not all that jazzed about celebrating a dude who “discovered” a continent that had already been settled for thousands of years and in so doing opened the door to centuries of exploitation and horror or straining at gnats to qualify him as only slightly evil relative to other discoverers and conquerors.

History is a knotted mess of competing motivations, circumstances, and intentions, but certainly one thing the life of the first-century apostle Paul illustrates is that the substance of our intentions are not the determinative thing for their rightness or wrongness. Saul of Tarsus didn’t set out one day to ruin people’s lives because he wanted to be a homicidal monster (aka persecutor): he was sure that he was defending the glory of God by his efforts. So it is with us. The principle of unintended consequences as well as various biases come into play here, and it is this thicket that is so ubiquitous as to be almost entirely invisible to many Americans, thereby rendering the suffering and severe disadvantages of others invisible, that needs to be chopped through. Motivated reasoning too often persuades us to gloss over the sins that constitutes our present for fear of disintegrating the good from which some of us — regularly disguised as “all of us” — have benefitted.

Is this postcolonial criticism? (Butterfly meme guy, that’s your cue.) Maybe? But much of it I’ve read hasn’t practiced a cognitive modesty that the gospel demands of every one of us. Certainly, criticism of this sort raises questions that can make people uncomfortable, but being provoked to discomfort is not evidence in itself of a thing’s being wrong. Wouldn’t we say the same thing with the discomfort the gospel brings to our delusions? Isn’t it usually the case that genuine hope cannot be bred apart from shattering false hopes? The only way to do something truly different in the time we are given is to be honest with the sins of the past, and the sins with which we are complicit as well as the structures of which we are a part that depend upon them. 

I’m more attuned to the need to identify concrete wrongs and demand their rectification, but I truly don’t believe that my being Native American provides any automatic insight: I don’t “as a Native American” anything. What is true is true, regardless of what I am. All I can do is testify that this or that is true and implore whoever I can to listen and to respond. Because what I am or what you are is never settled — it’s always a mystery to ourselves. Identity will save no one. My and our salvation is being known by God, and the true words that are spoken into the darkness of our world carry the resonance of the Word that entered into our history.

What is the hope of the Native American and of other conquered peoples? That the deliverer of another conquered people knew defeat as a way of life and knew that defeat would be the death blow to the powers that hold our world in thrall. Jesus partook of defeat so that any, whether the descendants of captives or of colonists, could partake of his triumph. Jesus’s forsakenness meets the destitution and dishonor of the defeated to swallow up their ruin and misery and to share all that he is and has. This is the only hope worth clinging to: that God himself would assume our defeat and secure a future none of us could ourselves. God would not have anyone forget the past. Instead, he assures us that a future awaits in which every wrong is undone, and in Christ, nourishes us with glimpses and foretastes of that future.

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5 responses to “Remembering Columbus Day Differently”

  1. David Clay says:

    “What is true is true, regardless of what I am.” This phenomenal, Ian. I think white people like myself (I’m like 1/64 Cherokee) have a hard time looking squarely at the past because we have no idea what to do with the unease. But work like this is the way forward. Very well done.

  2. Joey Goodall says:

    Seconding David’s comment. Excellent piece. Also loved: “Because what I am or what you are is never settled — it’s always a mystery to ourselves. Identity will save no one. My and our salvation is being known by God, and the true words that are spoken into the darkness of our world carry the resonance of the Word that entered into our history.”

  3. CJ says:

    Really appreciate this, Ian. Columbus Day is truly insane, but getting beneath how that feels and what that means for actual individuals today is harder to do, and you do it brilliantly. “What is true is true, regardless of what I am.” Myself, i am sensing a growing exhaustion with the “as an xyz” isms, and think that as the world grows more globalized & integrated we’ll soon look back and think what in the world were we saying. That was weird. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

  4. Susi says:

    “Identity will save no one” a valuable, dislocating word to our generation. Also, an important one.

  5. Lynne Chase says:

    Totally agree, Susi- that’s a thing to be explored- how we continue to seek our salvation through our put-on identities- always refining, but never finding the one that truly saves us as we examine ourselves in our cultural mirrors.

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