Native American panelists discuss Columbus controversy

BYU history professor David-James Gonzales, far left, moderates the discussion held by the panel of professors. Each explained their stance on Columbus and their experiences being a Native American member of the Church. (Preston Crawley).

Four Native American professors hosted a panel to talk about varying viewpoints on controversial Italian explorer Christopher Columbus held by members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The panel was organized after Clark B. Hinckley, the son of former Church President Gordon B. Hinckley, gave an address on August 21 in which he said Columbus played a major role in the restoration of the gospel through his discovery of America.

This did not sit right with some people, however.

Farina King, assistant professor of history from Oklahoma’s Northeastern State University, said she and the other panelists aren’t trying to rewrite history but are trying to have a conversation to bring awareness of the potential damage of holding Columbus in high regard.

“In a church that teaches equality and divine worth, we all need to be more accepting of others,” King said. “Columbus does matter, but I urge people to think about the lives who endured and overcame struggles imposed on them by the colonization.”

The first question asked related to each panelist’s feelings towards Columbus. Michalyn Steele, a BYU associate law professor, told of a church meeting she attended where each of the speakers was asked to talk about Columbus.

“I think it was the only sacrament meeting I’ve ever walked out of,” Steele said. “To me, sacrament meeting is about the Savior. I wasn’t interested in the intertwining of gospel truths and historical myth-making.”

James Singer, a sociology professor from Salt Lake Community College, expressed similar feelings about Columbus that he said he gained from learning more about the explorer’s impact on the world throughout his life.

“When we are brought up in the Church, we are socialized to think certain ways and have certain narratives,” Singer said. “There’s no denying that Columbus felt some closeness to divinity … but by their fruits shall you know them, and he enslaved and killed people.”

Singer said looking deeper into the history of Columbus made him think critically about the way people use cultural narratives. He said cultural views change over time and can improve, as evidenced by early Church history.

The event was packed and some in attendance had to sit on the floor. (Preston Crawley)

“One thing that I point to is the deep ideas of race when it came to blacks in the early Church,” Singer said. “These narrative ideas were held, but it was a form of white supremacy that exists within the Church. I have to have faith that the veneration of Columbus will also fall by the wayside and bring a stronger relationship between children of God.”

Some cities are establishing Indigenous Peoples’ Day instead of Columbus Day to become more accepting of different cultures. Salt Lake City did this in 2017. While Roni Jo Draper, a BYU professor of teacher education, considers this a step forward for the state of Utah, she said she thinks “white folks can do better.”

“My idea of a beautiful, peaceful world would be one without interrogation, which I usually only get from white people,” Draper said. “Start today by not asking questions like, ‘Did you live in a teepee?’ or, ‘What is your Indian name?’ These kinds of questions do a lot of damage, and I’d rather talk about better things than that.”

The panel was met with a standing ovation. Camille Smith, a sophomore at BYU, said she enjoyed the meeting and felt like she learned a lot about becoming more accepting of other cultures.

“I feel like sometimes we just aren’t aware that people can take offense to different things,” Smith said. “We may be trying to be inclusive or friendly, but the way we go about it is actually really offensive.”

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