October 10th used to be Columbus Day. Many now call it Indigenous Peoples’ Day. But does this ignore what many indigenous communities worldwide have done for eons?
In 13 states today there is no Columbus Day. It’s instead Indigenous Peoples’ Day. One website says this is part of a growing movement to honor indigenous communities and their resiliency in the face of enslavement by European explorers like Christopher Columbus.
The New York Times is a big driver behind this. It’s the publisher of “The 1619 Project” (that’s the year the first slaves arrived in America) based on the book The 1619 Project by Nikole Hannah-Jones. She claims the purpose of the American Revolution was to perpetuate slavery.
Many reputable historians have been critical of The 1619 Project, but not because it centers slavery in U.S. history. In a letter to The New York Times they wrote: “None of us have any disagreement with the need for Americans, as they consider their history, to understand that the past is populated by sinners as well as saints, by horrors as well as honors, and that is particularly true of the scarred legacy of slavery.” They’re critical because they feel the project “offers a historically-limited view of slavery” and “asserts that every aspect of American life has only one lens for viewing, that of slavery, and its fall-out.”
This narrow view is typical of a bias for the left hemisphere of the brain. Only the right hemisphere has an “understanding of the complex.” The sordid history of slavery is more complex than European colonists bad, Native Americans good. For example, many indigenous people in North America had slaves. Native Americans enslaved members of their own and other tribes, usually as a result of taking captives in raids and warfare, both before and after Europeans arrived. This practice continued into the 1800s.
In some cases, especially for young women or children, Native American families adopted captives to replace members they had lost. Enslavement was not necessarily hereditary. Slaves included captives from wars and slave raids; captives bartered from other tribes, sometimes at great distances; children sold by their parents.
Another example of The 1619 Project’s single-lens view is the inconvenient truth that there were in fact many American revolutions—plural—with many purposes. Take Maryland. The first English settlers was a select group of Catholics and Protestants. They came to Maryland seeking religious liberty, not to perpetuate slavery.
That doesn’t mean subsequent colonists didn’t trade slaves. Many did. But the first came to Maryland seeking religious liberty, including Catholics who for the most part abhorred trading slaves since the Catholic Church since the seventh century had campaigned against slavery. Her campaign effectively abolished slavery in Europe by the Middle Ages with Thomas Aquinas writing that slavery is a sin. A series of popes upheld his position, beginning in 1435 and culminating in three major pronouncements against slavery by Pope Paul III in 1537. This makes it difficult to imagine that every European colonist, especially Catholics but including many Protestants, came to America with the sole intent to perpetuate slavery.
The 1619 Project is terrible history because it conveniently overlooks the terrible truth that slavery is indigenous in almost all societies throughout history. Indigenous communities worldwide have enslaved their own people for eons. Makes me wonder if it’d be closer to the truth if we had a separate holiday called Indigenous Slavery Day.
 Iain McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, (Yale University Press, 2010).
 Almon Wheeler Lauber, Indian Slavery in Colonial Time Within the Present Limits of the United States, (Columbia University Press, 1913), 25–48.
 Alan Gallay, “Introduction: Indian Slavery in Historical Context,” Indian Slavery in Colonial America, (University of Nebraska Press, 2009), 1–32.