On Indigenous Peoples Day, let’s uproot white supremacist myths and tell the truth about our history

By BJC Director of Education Charles Watson Jr.

Monday, October 12, marks Indigenous Peoples Day, a celebration of indigenous life, culture and identity. The federal government recognizes the holiday on the second Monday of October as Columbus Day, but 14 states and more than 130 cities celebrate it as Indigenous Peoples Day, either in addition to or in place of Columbus Day.

This holiday was originally proposed in 1977 as an International Day of Solidarity with the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas, after a global gathering of indigenous nations in Geneva, Switzerland.

Media commentators often talk about Indigenous Peoples Day as a mere replacement for Columbus Day. In reality, the shift away from celebrating Columbus and towards celebrating indigenous people represents something much more significant.

To foster a culture where we celebrate the stories and lived experiences of indigenous people, we must first acknowledge the dangers of the stories that we currently tell. We must understand exactly why it is so dangerous to celebrate Columbus and other colonizers in our nation, our schools and our churches.

That begins with acknowledging a hard truth: The stories and national myths we have been told about Christopher Columbus are racist lies. These lies perpetuate white supremacy, imperialism and Christian domination. These stories were told to silence and marginalize indigenous people, and they continue that silencing violence whenever they are told today.

Christopher Columbus was not a hero. To celebrate Columbus is to celebrate the white supremacist and Christian supremacist project of colonization. The journeys of Columbus and other colonizers to the lands now known as the Americas ultimately led to the deaths of millions of indigenous people; those that survived were forced to assimilate to a new culture. To claim that Columbus or other colonizers “discovered’ lands already occupied by millions of people misrepresents history and tries to erase reality.

Following this year’s BJC Luncheon — which featured a conversation on white supremacy and American Christianity — I hosted a continuing conversation with Dr. Alphonso Saville IV, a scholar of American religious history at Georgetown University. During our Facebook Live discussion, he reminded all of us that Columbus’ project of colonial violence cannot be separated from the historical and political realities of white supremacy and white nationalism we face today.

In Dr. Saville’s words, “the political ideology of expansionism — the political ideology of Manifest Destiny — is the public expression of whiteness.” We cannot understand Columbus and the racist attempts to celebrate his legacy without understanding whiteness as a political project, lived out through Manifest Destiny and expansionism, as well as imperial expansion, chattel slavery and forced indigenous removal. Too often, we have restricted our conversations on whiteness to the realm of individual identity, ignoring whiteness as a political power structure.

Dr. Saville also reminded me how important it is for Christians to understand the connections between the political violence of whiteness and the political project of Christian nationalism. From its European foundation, he noted that the political power structure of whiteness has “embrace[d] Christianity as its own,” creating a vicious cycle of Christian nationalism and white supremacy.

Christianity is grounded in the life and witness of Jesus, an Afro-Asiatic Jewish carpenter from Palestine who preached boldly against the occupying Roman empire. But his message was co-opted by the forces of whiteness and colonization, who would use the Christian message to promote colonialism, racism, enslavement, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in Europe, the United States and around the globe.

White supremacy and Christian nationalism are the insidious political forces that drive our government’s celebration of Christopher Columbus. When faced with the stark reality of these forces, it can be easy to despair. But we cannot give in to the forces that oppress our communities and constrain our hope. We must choose a better way.

Re-centering the stories that have been pushed to margins allows us to better understand the rich complexity and diversity of indigenous experience. It allows us to listen and stand in solidarity when indigenous people speak for themselves and push back against those who would silence, stereotype or dismiss indigenous life and experience.

For religious liberty advocates, it is especially important that we center and celebrate the diversity of indigenous religious expression. When we fight for faith freedom for all people, that includes religious freedom for indigenous communities. One of the most famous examples came in the disastrous 1990 Supreme Court decision in Employment Division v. Smith, which denied the claim of free exercise of religion for two Native Americans who ingested sacramental peyote. In response, BJC led a diverse coalition that passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), restoring protections from unnecessary government infringement on religious practice. We must always listen to and work to understand indigenous people, their religious and non-religious practices, and the religious liberty rights they are guaranteed by the Constitution.

By uprooting the racist stories that present colonizers as heroes, we can plant new seeds of justice. Once these racist stories are dug up and thrown out, we can also dig deeper. We can see what whiteness has tried and failed to suppress. We can see what’s been growing, stronger and more resilient than the brittle roots of white supremacy and Christian nationalism. We can witness and receive the stories and lived realities of indigenous people and indigenous life.

Charles Watson Jr. is the director of education for BJC.