Readers’ Forum 9/10/19

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Nek ‘n-ew Roni Jo Draper. I teach multicultural education for people becoming teachers. I am a Yurok tribal member. A while back, I entered my BYU classroom, passed out candy and said to my students, “Happy Indigenous Peoples’ Day.” Most students smiled and took the candy. One student raised her hand and, in a voice generally reserved for scolding others, told me how the Book of Mormon testifies of Columbus, and that I should show more appreciation for him. After class, she followed me to my office where she shared her earnest feelings about the sanctity of Columbus and how her mother venerated him and told stories about him at their dinner table. Finally, my student insisted that I give Columbus equal time in my classroom. 

“Columbus has had his time,” I began. I turned in my chair and pointed to a photo hanging on my wall. In it, a young Native man holds an infant wrapped in a blanket and secured in a cradle basket. “This is a picture of my father and me.” I explained that my dinner table was laid with salmon and berries gathered by my family from the reservation. And our family conversations about Columbus recognized him as the forbearer of generational losses of our people — our land, our resources, our language, our ceremonies and our lives. 

I share this story because as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who also knows the history, erasure and pain of my Indigenous ancestors, I find the continued admiration of Christopher Columbus difficult to reconcile with Church messages that condemn white supremacist attitudes. I understand that readers of the First Presidency’s message condemning white supremacy may not connect the acritical celebration of Columbus to the acceptance of a white supremacist attitude. To illuminate my point, I set my remarks against the recent Daily Universe story highlighting Clark Hinckley’s presentation about Columbus to Education Week participants and an article written by Hinckley for LDS Living.

Hinckley claims that Columbus is the gentile prophesied of in 1 Nephi 13:12. Hinckley appears to base this assumption on the geography described in the verse. But why must “the Great Waters” represent the Atlantic Ocean? For Indigenous peoples of the Americas, there are many “Great Waters.” We know, for example, the vastness of the Pacific Ocean. We are also aware of islands dotted throughout the Pacific peopled by great boat builders and ocean navigators. The speculation that this “Great Spirit” mentioned in the Book of Mormon must be European represents biases that assume the supremacy of white people. 

Hinckley rightly acknowledges that Columbus didn’t discover the Americas. Hinckley does praise Columbus for opening the Americas to trade. Yet, this trade has disproportionally benefited white people at the expense of people of color — both Indigenous peoples who were never the recipients of the wealth taken from them and their land, and the African peoples who were deemed property fit to build the New World, suffered under this trade.

A popular narrative surrounding the colonization of the Americas, and one that Hinckley repeats, is that Indigenous peoples are better off since the arrival of white settlers who came from Spain, Portugal and other regions of Europe. Reader, please understand that suggesting that the cultures of non-white peoples were “primitive,” “savage,” “amoral” or otherwise “uncivilized” until the white people “discovered them” and “fixed them” is a narrative steeped in white supremacy. Indeed, Hinckley’s claim that one of Columbus’s legacies is a new “race” of people called “Latinos” is a classic white supremacist idea. Let’s understand that the early Indigenous peoples were enslaved, driven out and massacred. Any genetic shifting of the population (if this is indeed what Hinckley means by “race”) was due in large part to rape or interracial marriage that was deemed immoral or illegal by white settlers. Any cultural shifting was due to policies of forced removal, the separation of children from their parents, the prohibition of language and ceremonies and so forth designed specifically to solve the “Indian problem.” 

I can have a testimony of the Restoration, I can have a testimony of Jesus Christ and I can have a testimony of the Book of Mormon without having a testimony of Christopher Columbus. Please understand that I will give Columbus no more time, and please understand that when I see others do so, I will also see them propping up white supremacist attitudes that I do not believe have place in a gospel authored by Christ. 

—Roni Jo Draper, Ph.D.
Professor, Department of Teacher Education

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