His Ship Has Sailed--Expelling Columbus from Cultural Heritage Law.

Date01 March 2023
AuthorBehzadi, Emily

TABLE OF CONTENTS I INTRODUCTION 317 II. PRE-COLUMBIA AND THE MYTH OF THE "DISCOVERER" OF AMERICA 319 A. Origins of "Pre-Columbian" in Art and Art History 320 B. Rediscovering Columbus through Historiographical Revisionism 326 III. THE LAWS OF "PRE-COLUMBIAN" AETIFACTS 332 A. A National Legal Scheme Related to "Pre-Columbian" Objects 332 1. The 1972 Importation of Pre-Columbian Monumental or Architectural Sculpture or Murals Act 333 2. The Cultural Property Implementation Act 335 3. The Preservation of Cultural Heritage in the United States 337 B. The International Legal Scheme on Pre-Columbian Objects 339 1. Regional Agreements 339 2. The 1970 UNESCO Convention 342 3. State Treaties 343 IV. A CRITICAL APPROACH TO LANGUAGE OF PRE-COLUMBIA 347 A. Othering through Language 348 B. Historical Trauma and Memory 351 C. Periodization and Power 354 V. LINGUISTIC CHANGES TO THE LAW: REMOVAL OF THE TERM PRF-COLUMBIAN 356 A. Linguistic Amendments to Outdated Laws 357 B. Eliminating "Pre-Columbian" from Legal Vernacular 361 C. Replacing "Pre-Columbian" in Legal Vernacular 364 VI. CONCLUSION 365 I. INTRODUCTION

In the summer of 2020, a crowd of protestors, led by Bad River Anishinaabe activist Mike Forcia, swarmed a statue of Christopher Columbus in Saint Paul, Minnesota. (1) The protestors looped a large lasso around the statue and forcefully pulled it to the ground. (2) The crumbling of the statue was followed by singing, drumming, and joyous chants. This dethronement was symbolic--a cathartic destruction of the man that launched the mass persecution of Indigenous peoples in the Americas. Many Indigenous activists see this destruction of the bronzed Columbus as a visceral contestation of the erasure of Indigenous history and oppression. (3) While physically tearing down a statue of Columbus does not eradicate his existence from history books, or undo the harm of colonization, its abrogation demonstrates a paradigmatic shift in the once-myopic view of the so-called discoverer of the New World.

Since at least the mid-nineteenth century, Columbus has been canonized as "America's first great hero." (4) Columbus Day is a recognized national holiday in "commemoration of Christopher Columbus's historic voyage." (5) American history books celebrate Columbus as the courageous "discoverer" of America. Around 2.7 million Americans live in communities named after the legacy of Columbus. (6) A prestigious ivy league university is named after him. (7) Columbus has even been compared to Jesus Christ, as historians use him to divide the past into periods, identifying the Americas before 1492 as "pre-Columbian." (8) This culture of "Columbianism" is associated with misleading ideals of American patriotism. (9)

However, since the twentieth century, historians have revealed the undeniable atrocities committed by Columbus against Indigenous people. (10) Columbus and his crew violently expropriated Indigenous land, introduced enslavement, mandated conversion to Christianity, and committed genocide and rape. (11) If Columbus encountered resistance during his conquest and conversion, he responded with hangings, mutilations, and the act of releasing vicious dogs on the Indigenous people. (12) Christopher Columbus and his successors virtually eradicated entire civilizations, which led to the deaths of approximately 100 million Indigenous people by 1800. (13) Columbus's legacy continues until this day, as Indigenous populations are still facing serious human rights abuses, including "marginalization, dispossession of land, forced removal or relocation, denial of land rights, impacts of large-scale development, and abuses by military forces" during armed conflict. (14)

As part of the systematic colonization of the Americas, the colonial powers sought to subjugate Indigenous cultures. From the central and northern Andes to Mesoamerica and the Caribbean, Latin America is rich with Indigenous cultural heritage reflecting complex cultures and structures of the past. Columbus and his successors collected valuable Indigenous cultural objects and sent them to Europe. These objects were fetishized by Europeans for their "primitiveness" (15) and served to reinforce hierarchal cultural structures in the New World. Eventually, these objects came to be known under the blanket term of pre-Columbian, even though their origins are from different Indigenous populations with distinct cultures, temporality, and geography. At the turn of the twentieth century, pre-Columbian artifacts gained prevalence within the art market as objects of immense worth and rarity.

Due to this fixation on the collection of "primitiveness," these objects have been widely looted, trafficked, and sold on the international market. This pervasiveness prompted the United States to enact laws to combat these illicit activities. The art market, scholarship, and laws related to the protections of these artifacts have used the term "Pre-Columbian" synonymously with all Indigenous objects of Latin America before the Europeans' arrival. While these laws aim to protect the artifacts of Latin America, and in turn Indigenous communities themselves, the continued use of this problematic term is antithetical to these stated purposes. Referring to Columbus in the laws impacting Latin American cultural heritage contributes to the disenfranchisement of Indigenous people and erroneously attributes the existence of Indigenous peoples through their connection with the European conquest.

Language is powerful. This is the meaning of the term "the pen is mightier than the sword" in American lexicon. (16) The language used to categorize types of cultural heritage can be used as a tool of oppression and erasure. This Article seeks to initiate a deeper examination of words used to characterize the objects the law seeks to protect. By examining the words used, this Article offers the first case study of the term "Pre-Columbian." The use of problematic terminology, such as "Pre-Columbian," is what this author coins as "linguistic settler colonialism." This practice results in the othering of Indigenous cultures in the Americas and further exacerbates cultural trauma of the present day.

Part II of this Article examines the origins of the term "Pre-Columbian" in the field of art and art history in the United States. Part II also provides a historiographical account of the evolving revisionist literature on Christopher Columbus in order to provide context of the underlying meaning of the term. Part III explores the legal schemes using "Pre-Columbian" from both national and international frameworks. Through the lens of settler colonialism theory, (17) Part IV provides a critical look at "Pre-Columbian." Part V concludes by arguing that the term should be erased from cultural heritage law in the United States. No longer should cultural heritage be defined by the region's European "settlers," but rather by its Indigenous peoples and their rich histories.


    "Pre-Columbian" references the period of history "before Columbus," in which the Indigenous peoples of the Americas governed themselves autonomously, without interference from any other imperial power. In the context of cultural heritage, the term embraces all Indigenous artifacts of the Americas including the cultures of Mesoamerica (Mexico and Guatemala), the Central Andes (Peru and Bolivia), the Northern Andes (Ecuador and Colombia), Central America, and the Caribbean from roughly 1200 BCE to after the Spanish conquest around AD 1500. (18) Currently, this term can be widely found through newspaper articles, (19) books, (20) graduate classes, (21) and even grant proposals. (22) "Pre-Columbian" is not a term that has been within Western vocabulary since the Spanish conquest. Indeed, this word has a rich history that only started in the nineteenth century with the onset of studies in the art of Central America, South America, and the Caribbean. (23)

    1. Origins of "Pre-Columbian" in Art and Art History

      Ancient Indigenous cultures of Latin America were comprised of complex hierarchal systems. Having limited systems of writing, artworks were the most important and common method of communication. (24) In the sixteenth century, during the period of violent colonial expansion, the conquistadors greatly admired the architecture of the Americas. (25) In particular, the temples of the Aztec and Inca elicited great favor from the Europeans. (26) However, many movable works of art were rejected, as they were seen as sacrilegious. Many of these objects were destroyed or merely discounted as ''quaint curiosities." (27) Many of the gold and silver works were melted down for their value. (28) During the Enlightenment, many Europeans condemned Indigenous cultures as "uncivilized," while followers of the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau praised them "for their naturalness and romanticized them as Noble savages." (29) As artifacts were brought back to Europe, Western responses oscillated between curiosity and contempt. Europeans beheld these objects as part of a pictorial comparison between "civilized and uncivilized cultures." (30) These objects were identified as antiguedades, or antiquities. (31)

      As interest in these objects blossomed, the figure of Columbus simultaneously emerged in nationalist discourses over the construction of the nation state of the Americas. The US representation of Columbus reiterated the imperialist belief in the right of expansion and colonialization. Massachusetts Chief Justice Samuel Sewall, who is credited with the first usage of "Columbia," used the term as a synonym for the "New World." (32) By the 1760s, "Columbia" became popularized in early American culture through poetry, magazines, songs, and political cartoons. (33) By 1792, as the colonies were being formed, reference to Columbus became a symbolic denouncement of England and a "glorification of America." (34) At the same...

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT