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Forgiving Columbus: Can a 500 year-old wound be healed?

Columbus Day

[Revised from Sacred Fire Magazine, Issue 11]

Prelude: I wrote this story in 2009 after gathering with many Native people’s from the Americas in Carbondale, Colorado. Since the time of this writing, a day on the calendar has been carved out for our Native friends to be honor. I am grateful. We grew up with this day being Columbus Day, but I do not condone how the Americas were colonized, even though I live here and my ancestors are from Europe.

The last glow of daylight shows pink on Mt. Sopris. The Utes called him “Old Ancient Mountain Heart Sits there” when they lived here a little over one hundred years ago. For the Utes this is a holy mountain, though the name is nearly forgotten. They question whether they can bear to open up a relationship with this sacred place when they don’t live here any longer. Their language is getting close to extinction; few speak the words because the words are deeply relational to the land itself. When I first met the Old Ancient Mountain Heart, only thirty years ago, the land still had large ranches and beautiful meadows along the Crystal and Roaring Fork Rivers. Today, the place is dotted with McMansions, shopping centers, cars and a four lane highway, all in support of the Colorado ski industry. There’s not any room for the Utes to come home. How could they speak the true, ancient name of this holy mountain under these circumstances?

Now, at His foot, my husband and I tend the scared fire whose flames have been burning since Thursday, lit only once and tended by many. It’s now 5 pm on Saturday and in the wintry temperatures of the Rockies, this Fire’s flames reach into the night to take over the sun’s work of the day.

Grandfather Fire has called forth and has Ben invoked by representatives of ancestral traditions that come from the top of Alaska to the bottom of Argentina. Fires have been burning simultaneously up and down the spine of the Americas, supporting us here at the Heart, in Carbondale. At the “eleventh hour” a Native Gathering of the Americas congregated to fulfill a dream of “healing all wounds between the peoples of the world and Mother Earth”. The people here are working to establish the International Foundation for the Advancement of Indigenous People and the Commission on Forgiveness to move away from confrontation and violence.

As dreams go, it takes many villages and continents of inspired people to fulfill a dream of this magnitude. Dr. Ramon Nenadich, a Taino Indian from Puerto Rico, had this dream some 20 years ago after a mysterious illness nearly took his life. After western medicine couldn’t find anything wrong with him, he surrendered to indigenous healers. And, as death can place a person on the precipice of one’s path and purpose, Dr. Nenadich heard his calling, a voice telling him to gather the nations of indigenous people. Today, the unfolding of his purpose brings forth yet another message for the people of this gathering: to forgive Christopher Columbus. It is no coincidence that his people, the Tainos, met Columbus upon his arrival in 1492.

Dr. Nenadich’s message calls for people to get on one of two trains. He says, “One (train) is going to the abyss with no driver, and the other is the train to salvation which is going slowly and stopping all the time and wants all people of good heart to get on board. The train of darkness is directed by evil, selfishness, greed, violence, hatred, anger, ego, insanity. That’s the predominant society on the planet today. This (one) is about weapons and arms, economic and political domination. The train of salvation is the one of divine light, forgiveness, humbleness, reciprocity, understanding and love, and the driver of that train is the indigenous people. We invite all good people to get on that train. None of the weapons of the other train can be used, the train of destruction on which most of Western Culture has been riding.”

In council around the sacred fire the native peoples, younger and elder representatives from 16 countries, collaborate about the next morning’s break-of-dawn forgiveness ceremony. For some, the question is whether they are ready to do this. Some wounds are still very raw. The northern tribes were displaced from their homelands just a little more than a hundred years ago.

Meanwhile, Clifford Duncan, a Northern Ute Elder and descendent of the land in which this fire burns, leads the procession of Ute dancers to the Lakota drummer’s song. Aztec and Supai dancers follow. Simultaneously, a sweat lodge is held at the Vapor Caves in Glenwood Springs, the place of ancient hot underground healing waters that come from the volcanic action beneath the Rockies close to the Colorado River.

My fire tending duties done, I sit in this cave in total darkness with twenty others. The song of prayer fills me, and I feel our prayers go into the vapors, into the womb of Mother Earth and back into the waters to be heard by the spirit of all life and to heal the wounds of time. We are on our third round led by Kenny Frost, an Elder of the Southern Ute Nation. The heat challenges me, but I breathe slowly. I am honored to be here; I have dreamt of being here with the Ute people. A movie runs backward in my mind of my own life and the past 500 year’s cycle of destruction. I ask myself if the council at the fire tonight will consent to conduct the Ceremony of Forgiveness.

I’ve been to this cave many times before to pray and purify, but tonight my thoughts go to this healing for all of our relations, for the descendants of the original people, the ancestors and to the colonizers. This time is a pivotal moment in our history, and our lives have the chance to change forever. It is said that ghosts of the past will be released and the spirit of Columbus will be free, which brings the indigenous and non-indigenous to peace. In his opening address to the Gathering this morning, Mr. Duncan said, “Let’s do what we have to do.”

What does it mean to forgive when you cannot come home? This is the question my heart aches to ask when I consider Mr. Duncan, his family and his people who belong to the land called the Roaring Fork Valley. How does one forgive the atrocities of the past—a ast that has brought forth near annihilation in the present? An entire civilization is ready to collapse; what will forgiveness do to save the world? My heart says it’s the only thing that will. I know that out of death and destruction comes life. This is one law we can count on, the Law of Nature. The people must see that we don’t own the earth: We are the earth. Then we will rebuild with reciprocity to Mother Earth.

Forgiveness means acceptance, not to condone an action but to accept the action as being part of the Great Dream. The depth of acceptance is a spiritual path in and of itself. Where there is a wound in our psyche and in our body, there is a corresponding wound at the same site in the culture itself and in Nature herself. When we face the truth of our present-day actions, our ancestors’ actions, we heal and Mother Earth heals. In a truly holistic society all worlds are understood as interdependent, not as separate entities.

Forgiveness is the greatest healer of all, say many. Australia now acknowledges an unofficial “National Sorry Day” each year for the mistreatment of their original peoples. Peoples of New Zealand, Canada, South Africa, Nicaragua have received public apologies. Has it made a change? I think so. I see the aboriginals getting help, but it’s a long road to recovery. Some of the world’s most severe and long-standing conflicts have been relieved by compensation and apologies by public officials and governments.

It will take time for the Utes to bring forth the ancestral name of MT. Sopris. More apology and reckoning must take place, I believe, for apartheid still exists in many parts of the world, including the United States. I wonder and feel that possibly my own suffering of fifty years could also be released.

At the foot of this sacred mountain and here in the womb of Mother Earth I have the chance to heal the wounds of the past. This is my soul’s ancestral homeland. I am accepted at this gathering of nations, acknowledged for my own indigenous heart.

Now in the cave, Kenny Frost asks people to voice their prayers. Mine is similar to the Hopi Prophecy and to Dr. Nenadich’s cry for people to get on the train to salvation. I pray for hearts to open, for people to make the choice to get on this train of forgiveness, humbleness, reciprocity, understanding and love.

To be continued with Part 2 on my Blog, “Food for the Heart”, at Thanksgiving.


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