When over 90 percent of Native Americans died of disease: Remembering Columbus, Sacheen Littlefeather, and how God suffers with us

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When over 90 percent of Native Americans died of disease: Remembering Columbus, Sacheen Littlefeather, and how God suffers with us

October 10, 2022 - Mark Legg

FILE - Sacheen Littlefeather, a Native American activist, tells the audience at the Academy Awards ceremony in Los Angeles, March 27, 1973, that Marlon Brando was declining to accept his Oscar as best actor for his role in "The Godfather." Sacheen Littlefeather died Sunday, Oct. 2, 2022, at her home in Marin County, Calif. She was 75. (AP Photo/File)

Sacheen Littlefeather Marlon Brando Academy Awards 1973

FILE - Sacheen Littlefeather, a Native American activist, tells the audience at the Academy Awards ceremony in Los Angeles, March 27, 1973, that Marlon Brando was declining to accept his Oscar as best actor for his role in "The Godfather." Sacheen Littlefeather died Sunday, Oct. 2, 2022, at her home in Marin County, Calif. She was 75. (AP Photo/File)

America’s founding did not begin in a vacuum; it began after two centuries of colonization.

Indigenous People’s Day and Columbus Day are celebrated on Monday. In honor of both days, we’ll explore the tragic history of early colonization and some lesser-known history.

Christopher Columbus was the first explorer to arrive from Europe. Native Americans were spread out across the continent in various nations. Some were farmers and generally stayed in one area, and others were more migratory. Each had a unique culture and identity.

They often warred with each other, but they maintained a relatively harmonious relationship with their environment, the land, animals, and natural resources of the expansive Americas. Contrary to stereotypes, however, evidence suggests that American Indians built expansive road networks, farmed in well-organized towns, and were much cleaner than Europeans (for more interesting history on Indian American society, read 1491 by Charles G Mann).

Christopher Columbus was complex

While Christopher Columbus was a visionary and an excellent seafarer, he made significant moral and practical errors throughout his life. He quickly enslaved locals from Hispaniola and ravaged many people he encountered, becoming set on finding gold. His poor leadership kept fraying his band of explorers in every transatlantic journey he sailed.

A common misconception claims that people thought the earth was flat from the Middle Ages to this period. Our schools told us that Columbus was smart enough to figure out that the earth was round and set out to prove it.

Except that this story is patently false, based on a fictionalized account of Columbus’ life.

While a scant few maps from the time depicted the earth as flat, nearly everyone at that time believed the earth was a sphere. Since the time of the ancient Greeks, humans have correctly estimated the circumference of the earth. Columbus’ main contribution was his inaccurate calculations that went against the conventional (and correct) estimates of the time.

That said, he was a brilliant navigator, but he simply started with the wrong assumptions. His faulty calculations are why he arrived in America and believed it was India.

Columbus was a deeply flawed man, morally and otherwise.

Accidental (and intentional) horrors

An even greater horror swept the Americas without early European settlers even knowing.

When Europeans began to settle and trade, or, often enough, pillage and sack, it’s estimated that as many as 95 percent of all American Indians died in a few decades due to diseases like smallpox and the common cold, which their immune systems weren’t accustomed to. For reference, the Black Plague in Europe killed one-third of the population. The New World’s thriving civilization of American Indians was swallowed up by unintentional biological warfare. The evidence on the issue is based on tenuous estimates, but the widespread devastation is uncontested.

So, while Columbus enslaved and exploited natives as he saw fit, the greatest tragedy of all happened without any European knowing. Of course, since then the colonies and the US systemically drove American Indians off of the land through coercion or violence.

Americans today owe a debt to all American Indians that is impossible to repay. While the US government does its best to give recompense to the various surviving nations, the pain of lost culture and generations lingers.

Just as before the US’s abuses, all American Indian nations needed to hear the gospel, like all other peoples.

They don’t need the gospel in an enforced, culturally insensitive, even dehumanizing, way (Ephesians 4:15). We’ve tried that before. Because of the egregious abuse, American Indians are understandably deeply scarred by the church. Elsewhere, I’ve discussed the need for cultural engagement in missions to Indian Americans with thoughtfulness and redressing historic wrongs.

Sacheen Littlefeather and Christ’s suffering

Sacheen Littlefeather was an American Indian activist and model who died last week on October 3.

In 1973, she sat in a sea of intimidating faces—pristine, famous, all in tuxes and dazzling dresses. She was at the Oscar awards ceremony, but she hadn’t won one.

Littlefeather padded to the stage in moccasins. Her buckskin dress acted like armor against the stares. Feathers perched in her silky black braided hair, bringing honor in the face of dismissal.

She stood proudly on stage to accept the award on behalf of Marlon Brando for his role in The Godfather. She gave a speech by Brando, saying that he politely refused the Oscar in protest of the way American Indians were depicted as savages in the film industry.

She was received with a mix of applause and boos.

She said to the Associated Press, days after the event: “Those words were written in blood, perhaps my own blood. I felt about like Christ carrying the weight of the cross on his shoulders.”

Yet we have a God who suffered on our behalf—alongside us. Only the power of Christ’s blood can heal a wound so deep and wide. Native Americans have many heavy burdens to bear, including rampant alcoholism, in addition to the chains of historical oppression weighing on their collective hearts.

All humanity needs the gospel

God redeems all he allows.

So, he has redeemed the horrors (intentional and unintentional) of early American colonization and expansion. Many early settlers tried to live peacefully with American Indians. Many Indian Americans ravaged European settlements.

Littlefeather and Columbus were people, so they were both flawed and both had redeeming qualities. Humans are complex, and over-simplification does God’s revelation of human nature a disservice.

Humans are sinful, oppressive, and limited in knowledge, showing the desperate need for us to surrender to Christ, the high priest who can sympathize with our tears and reconcile the most disparate peoples under his grace (Hebrews 4:15).

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are from the ESV®️ Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®️), copyright ©️ 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved. The ESV text may not be quoted in any publication made available to the public by a Creative Commons license. The ESV may not be translated in whole or in part into any other language.

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