There have been two recent examples of misplaced religious veneration; both examples insult Native Americas.
The first example involves a book recently published by Deseret Book, a LDS publishing firm, and written by Clark B. Hinckley. The book–titled Christopher Columbus: A Man among the Gentiles–alleges that Columbus was inspired in his trans-Atlantic missions. According to the Deseret News, a LDS newspaper:
The key to understanding Columbus is found in the Book of Mormon, Hinckley said. He sites 1 Nephi 13:12, in which the prophet Nephi describes a man among the Gentiles who is wrought upon by the Holy Ghost and inspired to go forth upon the many waters.
Similarly, Columbus, a deeply religious man, recorded that he felt the hand of the Lord opened his mind to the fact that it was possible to sail to new lands.
The problem with this assessment is with the events that followed Columbus’ discovery. The Deseret News rightly acknowledges the genocide of Native Americans which followed. And Hinckley states:
Columbus opened up the new world . . . but we shouldn’t blame him for everything that other people did wrong.
Which is true. However, we need to be careful about alleging that his explorations were divinely inspired by a God who can predict (or at least intuit) the future. Let’s have some serious compassion for what eventually happened to the Native American populations in the New World. Hinckley’s book is ill-conceived and poorly timed.
The second example is the recent proposal by Pope Francis to declare Father Junipero Serra a saint during his upcoming September visit to the United States. The Pope recently referred to the 18th-century Franciscan priest as “one of the founding fathers of the United States” and praised his willingness to abandon the comforts and privileges of his native Spain to spread the Catholic message to the New World.
According to the LA Times:
In California, Serra has been criticized by Native American activists for his role in a Spanish colonial system that mistreated and displaced indigenous people, and some have accused him of forcing people to convert to Catholicism. The state Senate voted last month to replace a statue of Serra in the U.S. Capitol with astronaut Sally Ride.
Professor Robert Senkewicz of Santa Clara University, a Jesuit school, indicated that Serra is being canonized because “on balance, [he did] more good than none good.” Which seems like a pretty low threshold for sainthood.
Historian Steven Hackel, a professor at UC Riverside, noted that:
What [apologists] are trying to say is that Serra protected indigenous people from soldiers and settlers, and things would have been a lot worse without him. There’s very much truth in that . . . but the other side of the equation was what did those missions . . . mean for tens of thousands of Indians.
After Serra died in 1784, conditions worsened, with many Native Americans deaths and a general ethnocide occurring. Unfortunately most of history is written by the dominant culture, and the events described in history books frequently give short shift to minority cultures.
Deseret Book and Pope Francis (who I greatly admire) need to develop more cultural sensitivity. There was a genocide in the Americas and we need to be careful who we venerate.