By Karista Olson
In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. A voyage that is inexplicably still celebrated by many Americans every year as a key moment in the origin story of the Americas as we know them. A key moment, granted, but his arrival on the shores of the Bahamas, and all subsequent trips to and from Spain, would have another relatively unknown impact on the development of what would become contemporary Canadian governmental policy. Arguably, the paper trail that began the year after Columbus first landed can be traced to a number of different empires and has resulted in the gross legalization of some of the most abhorrent human rights violations in human history. What is truly incredible about all of this is how relatively unknown this very well documented history is to both North Americans and Europeans alike. This ignorance can be felt by individuals of First Nations descent who take it upon themselves to travel to countries, such as Spain, who have played roles in the early legalization of anti-Aboriginal policy.
When I found out that I would be living and teaching in Spain for a year, I was months away from graduating from college with a degree in First Nations Studies. Having grown up on a small Indian Reservation in Northern British Columbia, we were raised knowing about the devastation caused by disease and colonization. As my studies progressed, however, I had become increasingly perturbed with how little I really knew about how First Nations People had been effected by early European governmental policy and how those policies continue to influence those relations today. But I wanted to use this opportunity to find out. After a lifelong love affair with the sounds of Spanish guitar and dreams of the Mediterranean, being accepted into a teaching internship program in the province of Catalonia was a dream come true. It was also a chance to experience firsthand how First Nations People were perceived by Europeans in 2015.
Historically, the Spanish government was the first to institute an eradication policy after Columbus returned from the first of several voyages to the Bahamas, often bringing Indigenous slaves with him. (The Spanish monarchy were guilty of imposing many of the same culturally suppressive measures against the Catalan people that would eventually be used to suppress Aboriginal culture when they were first attempting to amalgamate the Spanish provinces including, but not limited to; restriction of open use of traditional language, segregation and eradication of some cultural practices). This policy was intended to solidify Spain’s claim over the new world and was brought about by the monarchy’s appeal to the papacy. Pope Alexander VI issued the papal bull ‘Inter Cantera’ in 1493 as part of a set of documents that would later be used in the creation of the Doctrine of Discovery, which would later be drawn upon in the creation of the Magna Carta, the Royal Proclamation and subsequently, the Canadian constitution. These papal bulls stated that any land not inhabited by Christians was available to be “discovered,” claimed, and exploited by Christian rulers and declared that “the Catholic faith and the Christian religion be exalted and be everywhere increased and spread, that the health of souls be cared for and that barbarous nations be overthrown and brought to the faith itself.” This “Doctrine of Discovery” became the basis of all European claims in the Americas as well as the foundation for the United States’ western expansion. In the US Supreme Court in the 1823 case Johnson v. McIntosh, Chief Justice John Marshall’s opinion in the unanimous decision held “that the principle of discovery gave European nations an absolute right to New World lands.” In essence, American Indians had only a right of occupancy, which could be abolished. How convenient. The basis of this mentality persisted throughout early North American development and led to many institutions that are now widely viewed as the abominations that they were. Elements of the Doctrine have rationalized heinous behaviors against Indigenous peoples through the centuries. Forced removals such as the Trail of Tears, the seizure of natural “resources,” the destruction of traditional languages and cultures, the sterilization of Indian women, and the disruption of Indigenous communities are examples of implementation of the concepts of “discovery” and “dominance.” The Vatican papal bulls of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries actively encouraged the subjugation of Indigenous nations, and the secularization of the doctrine in the United States and elsewhere perpetuated subjugation and its consequences. Consequences such as extreme marginalization, fracturing of identity, structural racism and a plethora of mental and physical health issues that manifest in a spectrum of systemic oppression in almost every colonized society in the world. This eradication policy has effected socio-cultural construct in North America and subsequently how First Nations People are viewed by the rest of the world.
For many First Nations travellers, especially those travelling in Europe, it is not uncommon for there to be some interesting initial reactions upon meeting people. The first being that many people outside of Canada just do not know what ‘First Nations’ means. It often requires the rundown of terminology; ‘Native’, ‘Native American’, ‘Native Indian’ and if all else fails the humiliating miming of stereotypical iconography. Once that connection had been made, then comes the barrage of eye roll inducing questions that many of us have become accustomed to at home, and then some. In my personal experience, the most disturbing of that being the expression of surprise that the ‘Native Indian’ still exists at all. The existence of the American Indian has existed for so long as a symbol removed from reality for most Europeans whose only experience with the cultural has been warped and diluted by Hollywood or popular American culture. Some of the first picture films made in North America were that of Plains Indians performing traditional dances in their feather headdresses and regalia were sent back to Europe around the turn of the century. These images have somehow managed to persist in the corners of the minds of many who simply do not equate the stereotype with the human being standing in front of them looking so dejected at having to, once again, explain that yes we still exist and no I don’t hunt with bow and arrows. For the most part, most people that I met were curious and interested in my culture and about Aboriginal life in Canada in general. Most were surprised at how many separate and unique First Nations there were in North America, perhaps not realizing that to be an “American Indian” is rather like being “European”. It would appear that the Spanish consideration of the affairs of the people ‘discovered’ in the ‘new world’ ended after Columbus returned from his last voyage where, despite the fact that he was almost imprisoned on charges of tyranny and extraordinary cruelty in his role as governor in the Spanish colonies, they built monuments and named streets after him.
Being a young First Nations woman travelling Spain by herself, I was able to take the time to explore the beautiful city of Barcelona and talk to people about what they knew about the realities of Columbus’s impact on North America. I found that they knew about as much as North Americans did. When I returned to Canada, I did so with the firm belief that in order to rectify this oversight there must be a shift in Education. I was in Spain to teach English and many of my students were fascinated to learn about First Nations culture, just as the youth in my community were to learn about Spanish culture. By educating ourselves and our youth about our own history, we are creating ties to other places that allow us to be able to heal by dismantling the stereotypes and reconciling the actions of the past. The power of eradication policy such as the Doctrine of Discovery can do no more damage as we proceed into a new era of relations both with our government and with ourselves. The goal now is to begin to assert ourselves into the big wide world after generations of being locked in the cupboard, to show who we are and that we will always be here.