Sephardism and Marranism in Native American Fiction of the Quincentenary

By Casteel, Sarah Phillips | MELUS, Summer 2012 | Go to article overview

Sephardism and Marranism in Native American Fiction of the Quincentenary


Casteel, Sarah Phillips, MELUS


So then, after having expelled all the Jews from all your kingdoms and domains, in the same month of January, Your Highnesses commanded me to take sufficient ships and sail to the said regions of India. And in consideration you granted me great favours and honoured me thenceforth with the title 'Don' and the rank of Admiral of the Ocean Sea and Viceroy and Governor in perpetuity of all the islands and mainland that I should discover and take possession of.

--Christopher Columbus, Journal of the First Voyage, 1492 (3)

Columbus, the marrano in search of an eternal haven, landed five centuries later in hundreds of historical studies. That a marrano would be celebrated as the discoverer of this nation, and, in the words of President Ronald Reagan, the "inventor of the American Dream," is an ironic weave of narrative histories; alas, the marrano must be an onerous signature to the antisemites.

--Gerald Vizenor, "Eternal Havens" (113)

In their reflections on the quincentenary commemorations of Columbus's "discovery" of America, Ella Shohat and Robert Stam observe, "For many Native Americans, to be asked to celebrate Columbus is the equivalent of asking Jews to celebrate Hitler" (66). Accordingly, a number of Native American activists, artists, and scholars have employed Holocaust analogies to advance their critiques of the Columbus myth. Contributors to The Submuloc Show/Columbus Wohs, a 1992 exhibit that explored Native American responses to the quincentenary, refer in the catalogue to the "Hitlerian facts" (Smith 9) of "the Columbus Holocaust" (62). In her curator's statement for The Submuloc Show (the title of which reverses the spelling of the explorer's name), Jaune Quick-to-See Smith identifies Columbus as responsible for beginning "one of the world's major holocausts" and characterizes the US government's Quincentennial Jubilee as "the celebration of the holocaust of the Americas" (iii). Controversial Native American studies scholar Ward Churchill also relies heavily on Holocaust analogies in his A Little Matter of Genocide: Holocaust and Denial in the Americas, 1492 to the Present (1997). Churchill includes as a frontispiece to his book Pam Colorado's poem "What Every Indian Knows," which opens with the lines "Auschwitz ovens / burn bright / in America" (xi, lines 1-3). Like the highly charged discussions surrounding the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum's relationship to the National Museum of the American Indian, these assertions of a "Columbus Holocaust" are informed by a logic that Michael Rothberg terms "competitive memory," in which "the interaction of different collective memories ... takes the form of a zero-sum struggle for preeminence" (3). (1)

Two Native American novels that were published in 1991 to coincide with the quincentenary, Michael Dorris and Louise Erdrich's The Crown of Columbus and Gerald Vizenor's The Heirs of Columbus, distinguish themselves from such contestations by advancing an identificatory reading of Columbus. Moreover, in an inversion of the Shohat and Stare formulation, this identificatory reading is made possible by their presentation of the explorer not as a Hitler figure but as a crypto-Jew--a Marrano or secret Jew who preserved a connection to Judaism after the forced conversions in Spain and Portugal. Indeed, while Crown and Heirs diverge significantly from one another in formal and thematic terms, they share an unusually sympathetic reading of Columbus that is enabled by the distinctive manner in which they bring Native American and Jewish cultural narratives into relation. Crown and Heirs each feature prominent Jewish characters who serve as allies, facilitators, and mentors for the Native American protagonists in their quests for political and imaginative sovereignty. It is striking that in both novels, the majority of the non-Native characters are Jewish. Both novels also incorporate a retelling of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, thereby resituating the landfall and its aftermath for indigenous peoples in the context of Europe's relations with its internal Jewish Others.

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