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Washington DC will no longer celebrate Columbus Day. Instead, it has substituted “Indigenous Peoples’ Day”.

David Grosso, the at-large DC Council member who authored the legislation for the change, proclaimed, “Columbus enslaved, colonized, mutilated, and massacred thousands of Indigenous People in the Americas. We cannot continue to allow this history to be celebrated as a holiday in the District.”

Mr Gross appears to be unaware that, had it not been for Columbus, there could be no such thing as Indigenous People’s Day. He further stated: “We are a government that values equality, diversity, and inclusion. Continuing to observe a holiday built on the celebration of oppression runs counter to these values.”

He fails to observe that none of these values would be present in America were it not for Columbus, as they certainly did not exist prior to his arrival. So from where did they come? The very idea of an Indigenous Peoples’ Day is inimitably Western because Western culture is the only one that looks outside of itself to examine and embrace what is good in other cultures. The reason it can do this is because philosophy is at the foundation of Western civilization.

The significance of this will be explained as we proceed.

The most likely reason for the move to Indigenous Peoples’ Day is that Mr Rosso and his colleagues, like so many others today, view the tribal life of indigenous peoples as a kind of Rouseauian idyll in which all lived in peace and harmony in the unspoilt simplicity and innocence of their primitive circumstances. It was the original sin of Western civilization that corrupted them – in this case, brought by the evil Spaniards, led by an Italian adventurer.

One needn’t diminish the appalling brutality with which the Spaniards treated the indigenous peoples to acknowledge that the indigenous peoples treated each other with brutality as well. The difference is that Western culture had or developed a standard by which to recognize such brutality as morally wrong (even if observed only in the breach), while the indigenous cultures did not.

Here are a few uncomfortable examples contemporaneous with Columbus that make this clear.

Peter Martyr d’Anghera, chaplain to the court of Ferdinand and Isabella, interviewed sailors returning from Columbus’ voyage. According to his record, “The Caribs emasculated the boys whom they seized and those who were born of the captives, fed them fat and, at their festivals, and devoured them.”

Entering into the Carib’s inner lodgings, the Spaniards “found faggots of the bones of men’s arms and legs, which they reserve to head arrows, because they lack iron; the other bones they cast away when they have eaten the flesh. They found likewise the head of a young man, fastened to a post, and yet bleeding, and drinking vessels made of skulls,” wrote Martyr.

A. Vespucio relates the condition of four young man who had been “taken prisoner in another land, and they had been castrated and all were without the male member and with fresh wounds … They said they had been castrated in order to eat them…”

As appears to have been the case in the parts of the Americas where it existed, cannibalism was not a primary source of nutrition, but was practiced for various cultic reasons – as in honoring ancestors by ritually consuming parts of their bodies and keeping their bones in one’s dwelling. Eating parts of captured enemies served to ingest their spirits and signified their ultimate humiliation. In the case of the four unfortunate young men, that particular body part was apparently consumed in order to increase virility.

In 1503, Queen Isabella’s decreed that only those engaged in cannibalism could be taken as slaves – on the premise that the life of a slave would be a step up from that of a cannibal. (This decree, no doubt, led to exaggerated reports by the Spaniards of cannibalism in the Caribbean in order to justify more enslavement than would otherwise have been allowed.)

In any case, the question arises regarding Indigenous Peoples’ Day, which indigenous people are you talking about? The ones on the menu, or the ones dining? For the diners, it appears that their idea of inclusion was culinary.

There is nothing particularly peculiar about the behavior of certain Caribbean tribes at that time, as it was typical of other tribal cultures in other eras. Here is an explanation of the tribal mindset that made such behavior possible.

The distinguishing feature of tribal life is that it is without philosophy. In the pre-philosophical world, the inability to distinguish the nature of things from man-made customs was at the basis of the tribal mentality. People deemed each other’s actions to be right or proper only to the extent that they conformed to the customary way things had been done before, and wrong to the extent that they differed. There was no standard other than “the ways of our fathers”. One was only a tribal member, with duties to one’s tribal gods and ancestors, and nothing beyond. Consequently, nothing could be right or wrong in and of itself. People who worshiped other gods and lived by different standards – members of other tribes – simply did not belong to one’s own “species”, as it were. They had different “fathers” and different “ways”. The identification of the individual and the tribe was total.

To enslave or slaughter a member of another tribe fit perfectly within the order of the tribal view. When one people conquered another, the typical modus operandi was execution or enslavement. No one could imagine moral grounds on which to object to this.

Significantly, there was often no word for “human being”, no concept of personhood. An appeal to “humanity” would not have been intelligible to either the victors or the vanquished because they both suffered from the incapacity to see another person as a human being. A defeated tribe could mourn their lost, eaten, or enslaved members, but they had no way of conceiving a standard of justice by which to condemn these things as objectively wrong, because if they had won, they would have done exactly the same things as justified by their tribal mores. This kind of behavior was generally true of all pre-philosophical people no matter where or when.

This helps us understand why no indigenous people ever came up with the idea of an Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

Closer to the time of the American Founding, the same kind of tribal behavior was evident. From his observations of the American Indian tribes in 1793, Nathaniel Chipman touched upon some of the invariable characteristics of the tribal mentality:

“Among their different tribes, the injuries of an individual are resented as national. The possession of a hunting ground is, to them, the possession of an empire. These are sources of frequent wars, waged with the most savage ferocity. The butchering and scalping of old men, women, and children, the torturing and burning of prisoners, in cold blood, with the most shocking circumstances of cruelty, are among their pastimes. These are not secret acts of violence. They are by none considered as wrong. They are public transactions, performed, under what is, to them, the law of nations.”

Speaking of other kinds of tribes, including ancient ones, Chipman observed: “So universal is the state of war among such a people, that in almost every language, the same word, originally, signified both foreigner and enemy.”

One of the grievances listed in the Declaration of Independence confirmed Chipman’s observations. It claimed that George III “has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers , the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions of existence.”

In his Notes on the State of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson remarked upon the treatment of women in tribal life: “The women are submitted to unjust drudgery. This I believe is the case with every barbarous people. With such, force is law. The stronger sex therefore imposes on the weaker. It is civilization alone which replaces women in the enjoyment of their natural equality. That first teaches us to subdue the selfish passions, and to respect those rights in others which we value in ourselves. Were we in equal barbarism, our females would be equal drudges.”

Those unfamiliar with the ancient lineage of tribal thinking will also not be able to understand it when they encounter it today. This situation still exists in a few areas of the world, including in remote regions in South America. Tribes there continue to define themselves in terms of their gods. These tribes name themselves, and other tribes, but they have no term for human being. Consequently, they cannot recognize themselves or other people as human persons. Indeed, their own wives are often slaves.

A contemporary example of tribal mentality comes from Iraq’s Al Anbar province. Speaking of what will be done to his tribal opponents, a leader said in late 2014, “This is a tribal issue for us right now. There’s no way to let them live. I’m not going to leave any of them alive. It’s them, their family members and all their property. We’re going to destroy them all.” He might as well have been speaking in the pre-philosophical world of ninth century BC.

Note that tribal vengeance can be taken upon any member of an offending tribe – not necessarily upon the tribal members responsible for the grievance – because what really exists is the tribe, not the individuals who are part of it. Therefore, it is the tribe that must be punished, and any part of it will do for that purpose. (This helps explain what otherwise would seem random attacks upon the West by Islamist terrorists who are happy to kill any Westerner in retaliation for their perceived “humiliation”. These terrorists, including those with graduate degrees, are mostly still living under the mores of pre-philosophical Arab tribal culture, which justifies revenge against any member of the opposing tribe – meaning in this case the West or the “Romans” as they often call Westerners.)

Fighting is endemic to such situations. In Saudi Arabia, a country that only formally abolished slavery in 1962, King Salman explained why his country cannot consider democracy: “If Saudi Arabia adopts democracy, every tribe would be a party” and the country would be impossible to govern.

The tribal mentality is obviously inimical to the principle of equality, which is at the foundation of constitutional rule. One cannot say that “all men are created equal” until one knows what man is, which requires, as well, knowledge of the differences between nature and custom, the human and the nonhuman, and the human and the divine. These differentiations are essential to defining what is human.

Recognizing the deplorable way in which indigenous peoples were being treated, Pope Paul III, in an extraordinary encyclical from 1537, called demonic those who denied the full humanity of the Indians. Though it was observed largely in the breach, the encyclical is worth quoting at length for its teaching:

“The enemy of the human race … inspired his satellites who, to please him, have not hesitated to publish abroad that the Indians of the West and the South, and other people of whom We have recent knowledge should be treated as dumb brutes created for our service… We consider, however, that the Indians are truly men… Desiring to provide ample remedy for these evils, We define and declare … that, notwithstanding whatever may have been or may be said to the contrary, the said Indians and all other people who may later be discovered by Christians, are by no means to be deprived of their liberty or the possession of their property, even though they be outside the faith of Jesus Christ; and that they may and should, freely and legitimately, enjoy their liberty and the possession of their property; nor should they be in any way enslaved; should the contrary happen, it shall be null and have no effect.”

Dominican friar Bartolomé de Las Casas, appalled by the atrocious treatment of the island peoples, which he had personally witnessed, was another champion of the human rights of the indigenous peoples. Due to the influence of Las Casas’ indefatigable work, Emperor Charles V promulgated the New Laws of the Indies for the Good Treatment and Preservation of the Indians, which forbade slavery, called for the release of any slaves held, insisted that the indigenous people be paid for their labor.

At Indigenous Peoples’ Day in DC, there is probably no mention of Paul III’s encyclical or of Las Casas. But City Council members should be aware that no indigenous peoples could have issued such an encyclical or promulgated the laws to which Las Casas’ work led because they had no problem with holding slaves themselves. The idea that others “are by no means to be deprived of their liberty or the possession of their property” would have struck them as exceedingly odd, if not incomprehensible.

In condemning Columbus Day, Mr Grosso and the DC City Council have actually chosen to celebrate tribalism without evincing any awareness of what tribal life was really like or of what an enormous regression for humanity returning to tribal life would entail. There would be the “mutilation, massacre, and slavery” that Mr Gross so rightly deplores, but without any standard of “equality, diversity, and inclusion” by which to judge these things as wrong. The celebration that he and the DC City Council have begun would logically bring about the very things they deplore.

Robert R. Reilly is the director of the Westminster Institute and the author of The Closing of the Muslim Mind.

Robert R. Reilly

Robert R. Reilly is Director of the Westminster Institute. In his 25 years of government service, he has taught at National Defense University (2007), and served in the Office of The Secretary of Defense,...