Columbus discussed from several ethnic viewpoints

November 25, 1992|By Pat Brodowski | Pat Brodowski,Contributing Writer

Call Christopher Columbus a hero and you'd better watch out. Evaluating what's happened since he stumbled onto the sands of San Salvador 500 years ago has turned the grade-school myths upside down.

His conquest led to greed, exploitation and mayhem, said Robert H. Chambers, president of Western Maryland College. At the Westminster college, a town-meeting style exchange was held yesterday featuring historians, religious scholars, an anthropologist, attorneys and activists.

Each summarized an ethnic viewpoint on the arrival of Columbus and other Europeans. Informally, with audience participation, they discussed how to undo the harmful myths in the next 500 years.

The discussion was organized by the Rev. Arthur T. Cribbs, a minister of the United Church of Christ, and Rosemary Maxey, lecturer in philosophy and religious studies at WMC.

"Columbus saw himself a man of God," said Barbara Reynolds, columnist for USA Today and moderator of the discussion. "Was he of God or was he a brute?"

Said Robert Grossman, chairman of the Council of the Center for Jewish-Christian Studies at the Chicago Theological Seminary, "The tragedy was that Christopher Columbus believed his was the right way, with the perception of emptiness and evilness of those who are not Christian."

He said this tunnel of perception led other European explorers on conquests that exploited people and carved up the world European-style.

Native Hawaiian Mililani Trask is descended from "the BC people -- before Columbus, Cook, Cortez," she said. As an attorney, she said, she is active in preserving native Hawaiian land rights and sovereignty.

"The Columbus myth is a little monster, a little lie," she said, citing foreign destruction of her ancestral culture after the invasion of Capt. James Cook.

"Discoverers saw the Earth as a commodity, and native people as servants, bringing us [today] to the brink of global and environmental disaster."

The reality is that Columbus is still an Italian symbol of liberation and renewed hope, said Ron Musto, Ph.D and author of "The Catholic Peace Tradition," noting that statues were once erected by Italian-Americans who rallied against bigotry.

"Columbus must be grappled with," he said. "He could be the symbol of the immigrant."

Ivan Van Sertima, professor of African studies at Rutgers University, said, "Columbus is more than a myth of the immigrant. Instead of discovering cultural myths, discover cultural reality. We must give up these destructive myths."

Based on myths he studied as a child in British Guiana, he said, he thought Greece, Rome and Britain were the three greatest civilizations. His professional life's work has been to discover the missing great civilizations in Africa.

"The missing ingredient in 1492 was respect," said Suzan Harjo, Native American leader and president of the Morning Star Foundation for native American cultural rights.

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