On Columbus Day: What We Shall Remember

I think we should all have respect for the earliest pioneers who took the biggest risks to explore America and turned it into a land of the free and the envy of the world.

Today it is popular to claim that the European colonists who came to the Americas since Christopher Columbus were evil invaders, and their conquest of the American Continent was filled with genocide. As an important part of the “white guilt/colonial guilt” narrative, the colonization since the age of discovery that created 35 new nations (including U.S.) is unjust in the root, and was nothing but a total disaster for Native Americans. In this logic, Columbus Day should not be celebrated.

But actually, it is not true. And I think what we should remember on Columbus Day is much more than that.

On Lands

If we see the colonization purely as the illegal invasions, we have to admit that all lands in Americas are Indian nations’ sovereign territories. Although many people do believe this today, it is just not true. To know whether a land is under the sovereignty of a nation or terra nullius (nobody’s land), we have to turn to the International Law. Since the International Law comes from the compilation of convention and treaties of nations, we can still infer the generally accepted definition of sovereign territories at that pre-Westphalian era. One of the main elements of sovereign territory is effective occupation, control and management. The estimations of the pre-Columbian population of North America ranges from 2 million (Ubelaker 1988), 4 million (Denevan 1992) to 7 million (Thornton 1981). With a small population, underdeveloped technologies and tribal social organization patterns, Indians efficiently occupied, cultivated or managed only a small proportion of lands in which is now America. In fact, when the first European settlers came to America, most of the lands they occupied (which is now New England) was no more than wilderness. Famine made it difficult to survive. In early 17th Century, most of the earliest settlers died from this cause.

Actually, the European settlers were not immigrants to Indian nations; they built their own self-governed autonomous bodies in Americas, which were mostly terra nullius at that time. These autonomous bodies, like Massachusetts Bay Company, got their authorities mostly from royal charters of European countries. And since then, millions and millions of Europeans risked everything to come to this new world to start a brand new life from scratch. They built their own communities and expanded these autonomous bodies,and became colonies with formal government and elected legislators. It is a perfect example of “spontaneous order” in Friedrich Hayek’s theories. And in 1776, 13 gutsy colonies decided to form a new kind of alliance and then they founded a new nation together. This nation is the United States of America.

On Wars

And you may say, yes, tribes and empires like the Aztec did not control every acre of lands. They still owned some land, and their land shrank after the Europeans came. That came from conflicts and wars between settler communities and Indians, which were a part of their daily life, as any neighboring nations or communities in the whole post-modern world. And land ceding was a common term in truce treaties at that time. Wars between European communities and Indian tribes were frequent, and as a result, the loser often ceded lands to the winner. At first, both sides were evenly matched. Sometimes Europeans faced worse situation because Indians were good cavalrymen and fierce killers. Then, with the rapid growth of European communities and their advantages in technologies and social system, the balance of victory leaned towards Europeans and the result of later wars may look like a unidirectional invasion and killing. But it is not.

Most of times, European allied with Indian tribes to fight against other Europeans and Indians. In the mid-18th Century, most Indians fought against English as an ally of French. About two decades later, the same Indians became an ally of English to help them suppress the American Revolution. Lands were acquired and ceded and borders were changed as a result of wars. In the thousands of years in human history before the Kellogg-Briand Pact in 1928, wars were considered legal and fair means to achieve a nation’s goals.

Do Indians live in the dream before Europeans came? No. Cruel conflicts and wars took place among the tribes before and after the arrival of Europeans, and people lived in worse poverty before international trades brought them Western products. Brutal customs like headhunting and scalping existed for thousands of years. And it is Europeans that brought a more civilized law of war.

On Killings

One common allegation is about the atrocities against Native Americans. I do not deny there were atrocities. But the victims are not just Native Americans, but also European Americans.

And we cannot deny there is different scales of massacres, done by both sides. Indians also conducted many mass-killings to European settlers and vice versa. According to The Wild Frontier: Atrocities during the American-Indian War from Jamestown to Wounded Knee by William M. Osborn, in all the atrocities from the beginning of Colonization to 1890, 7193 Indians and 9156 Europeans were killed. His definition of “atrocity,” which I think is quite reasonable, include murders, tortures and killings of civilians and captives. So it seems that both sides suffered from each other and Indians had a worse record. We know from some literature and reports that, in mid-19th Century, being attacked and live scalped by Indians happened from time to time.

On Collective Human Rights

Since the colonial times, American governments treated Indian tribes as independent sovereignties. They respect Indians’ collective human rights, which are right not just as individuals, but as a group with their own traditions, to live on their customary laws. In the constitutional system of U.S., 326 Indian reservations have their own kind of autonomy and sovereignty. There may be flaws for all parties to fix. It is the American common law that successfully integrates the rule system of different groups of people. It is another main differences from the way China treated Tibetans, Uyghurs, and many other minorities, or Nazi treated Jews.

I think we should all have respect for the earliest pioneers who took the biggest risks to explore America and turned it into a land of the free and the envy of the world. They were English, German, Spanish, French, Scandinavian, Polish, Irish, Africans, as well as the Native Americans, who fought for their natural and historical rights as other groups did. And I think the best way to show our respect and gratefulness to these bravest and devoutest people is to remember and understand the true history without framing into simple and assertive political correct narratives.

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About Roy Rivers

Roy Rivers (Shan He), Columnist. UMich '16, economic major, foreign affairs & history enthusiast, value investor. Trying to draw my picture of the world we know. Twitter: https://twitter.com/royrivers9206