For indigenous peoples, the word “Columbus” refers not to a man but to an event, the conquest of land and people by Spanish conquistadores in the 15th and 16th centuries.
Cristoforo Colombo (Cristóbal Colón as he was known when sailing for Spain) never set foot on the continent of North America, nor did he set foot on land in what is modern day Colombia, the country that would be named after him.
”When Columbus and his Spanish conquerors arrived, the Mountain was a garden in perfect balance.”
His four voyages took him to the Caribbean islands of Cuba, Hispaniola, the Bahamas, Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago. He only touched the American continent in what are now Venezuela, Panama, Honduras and Costa Rica.
The name Colombia was originally a broad geographical term referring to all of the so-called New World. In the early 1800s, it was applied more specifically to the original Gran Colombia, a confederation of Spanish territories that included modern-day Colombia, Panama, Venezuela, Ecuador, and northwest Brazil.
Columbus Day — or Día de la Raza as it is called in rememberance of the heritage, colonization and cultural diversity throughout Latin America — is celebrated as a national holiday in Colombia, not surprising since Colombia is a land of holidays. It often seems that every other Monday is a holiday.
But the original peoples of Colombia have a different view of Columbus Day, as you might imagine.
In Chapter 6 of my novel “Journey to the Heart of the World,” which was written with the indigenous Elders of the Kogi, Arhuaco and Wiwa peoples of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, the Columbus story re-surfaced.
“One day, a day not unlike this day, a day that seems like yesterday in the memory of the ancestors but that was in truth 500 years ago, giant birds, floating birds with wings of cloth, appeared on the shores. They carried on their backs the returnof the younger brother,” shared the Arhuacho Elder.
“The younger brother had heard of the riches of the Mountain — the abundance of fruits and spices, the stories of gold — and had returned to take what he believed belonged to him,” he recounted with the emotion of a son recounting the death of his own mother.
“We speak of this invasion by the younger brother as ‘Columbus.’ For us Columbus was not a person but an event, an event that continues to this day. Columbus was the return of the younger brother and the beginning of the rape and killing of our Earth Mother.”
Apparently the peoples of the mountain have never had a written language, never used cave paintings or hieroglyphics. The history of the mountain and its peoples is recorded in the collective memory of the Elders, passed from ancestor to ancestor through the ages.
It is from this memory that the Elder spoke as if Columbus happened only yesterday.
“Before Columbus the many peoples of the Mountain lived in harmony with their Earth Mother, with la madre tierra. We fished the sea and we tilled the soil. From the beaches at the base of the mountain to the high ground just below the snows we raised our cows and sheep and goats, planted our beans and picked our fruits. And we cared for our Earth Mother,” he recited.
“But Columbus came with a heavy heart. He came to drive us from the land, to take from la madre tierra without ever giving anything back. He came to grab, to possess, and to rob our Earth Mother of the life she had been sharing with us and our ancestors through all the ages of time. Since the beginning of time our Mother had been creating. Every day, when the sun was born anew, this land became again a beautiful new creation. Columbus came only to destroy.”
“When Columbus and his Spanish conquerors arrived, the Mountain was a garden in perfect balance. The Mountain rose straight out of the burning sands of the sea to the eternal snow of its twin peaks, and in between were every kind of landscape and climate known on Earth.”
“There were deserts, coastal jungle, tropical rain forests, cloud forests, open woods, alpine meadows, even high tundra. All of that was teeming with life — bears, monkeys, jaguars, deer, turkeys — and many, many more. In the waters were fishes of every description plus alligators, frogs, turtles. And in the sky and trees every kind of bird imaginable — condors and eagles, pelicans and storks, macaws, parrots, toucans, hummingbirds and hawks.”
“The Mother created the Mountain to be the heart of the world and to be home for all of her creation. The heart of the world is the heart of a living planet, and at the time that Columbus arrived the heart of the world was beating in harmony, all life was thriving in the balance.”
“And the original peoples of the Mountain, our ancestors, were carefully tending the garden, carefully working to maintain that balance, living in harmony with the natural rhythms of the Mountain.”
The Elder’s voice was shaking and his eyes were moist with tears. He paused and returned his gaze to the horizon. He surveyed all the land that was spread before him, seeming to ponder what was then, and what was now.
“Columbus destroyed that world. Yes, the land is still here, and we are here, but the heart of the world that Columbus found is no more. The heartbeat is weaker, the Earth is out of balance, much of her energy has been depleted.”
It was an interesting thought and I knew the story of Columbus. Being from New York, I knew that Columbus was Italian and that the Italians of the U.S. claimed him as a hero.
The Native Americans not so much.
He sailed for the Queen of Spain, under the Spanish flag, and he saw himself as one who was saving souls for Jesus Christ and also bringing vast amounts of gold back to the Queen and the Pope, mostly to finance their wars in Europe.
I knew that the conquests and the battles and the disease that followed the Europeans wherever they went throughout the Americas eventually resulted in the complete extinction of many of the original peoples — the Incas, the Aztecs, the Mayas, the Toltecs, even the Tayrona of Caribbean Colombia.
But not the original peoples of the Mountain.
Why? Why did these peace-loving people survive the conquest which killed so many of their brothers and sisters up and down the continent?
The Elders believe they have the answer: they survived because they never stopped caring for the health of their Earth Mother. It was in their ceaseless commitment to caring for the planet that they, in fact, were caring for themselves.
It was by striving to save the world that they ultimately saved themselves. It was not bigger and more powerful weapons that saved them. It was not better military strategy that saved them, unless running away and hiding in the high mountains counts as a military strategy.
It was certainly not by amassing vast amounts of wealth — not gold, not oil or anything else of so-called value — that saved them. It was reclaiming their oneness with their Earth Mother and rededicating themselves to caring for her that saved them.
The Elders were not subtle with their story and there might be a lesson here — a lesson for me, a lesson for today. Their teaching was working. Once again, I was seeing things from a new perspective, with new eyes.
If the people of the mountain had chosen to spend their lives acquiring things and accumulating wealth they would have perished. Instead they chose to live simple lives, creating a sustainable culture where the people cared for each other and cared for their Earth Mother.
And they survived. They thrived.
Columbus also survived. Columbus is alive and well and living in Colombia today, at least as the Elders understand the Columbus event. It has never ended.
In an act of unity, the Elders of the three indigenous peoples of the Sierra Nevada have decided to close Tayrona National Park during the month of November, in order to “purify” their sacred and ancestral lands.
The impact of tourism, as well as air and water contamination led the Mamos to enact their decision with the National Parks agency.
The Columbus event has never ended.