By Margaret Fraser

Columbus Foundation Replica of Nina and Pinta

On the left are the Columbus Foundation’s replicas of Niña and Pinta. Center right, in front of the artist, is the top of the tent where volunteers welcomed visitors to the ships. On the far right is the tent that was provided for the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians to educate visitors about the impact of Columbus’s voyages on the indigenous people.


You never know when you are going to be called to take a stand. Well, of course, if you have a longstanding concern, you can be pretty sure that sooner or later you are going to have to stand up and speak up. But in this case, I didn’t see it coming. I didn’t even know how strongly I felt about the issue until it arrived – not exactly on my doorstep, but in a marina just a few blocks from my house.

When I moved to northern Michigan I joined a nonprofit organization that restores and builds replicas of ships that used to sail on the Great Lakes. While some people enjoy working in the woodshop, or teaching at-risk youth to sail, my particular interest was to be part of the crew that sails a replica of Madeline, a two-mast schooner that carried cargo in the mid-1800s. These schooners were like the large trucks of today. Before the railroads and highways, they carried the heavy freight.

As part of my training I had attended evening classes over a couple of winters, and contributed in practical ways by showing visitors round the boat, and by being part of the team that took people out on summer evenings on sails in the Grand Traverse Bay. The most challenging time was a week when we took Madeline from Toledo, Ohio, up Lake Huron, under the Mackinac Bridge and round into Lake Michigan back home. Lake Huron was rough and I got pretty sick. There were times when we sailed all night and had to do four-hour watches in the dark. The sleeping accommodation was like a large bookshelf. All this time I was being tested on my knowledge and skills by more seasoned crewmembers. I was finally promoted from trainee to deckhand. So you get the idea — a healthy and harmless hobby for an aging Quaker.

Overnight, this was to change. I read in the paper that the organization had invited replicas of Columbus’s ships, the Niña and the Pinta, to visit town. So I sent a swift email to the president of the organization. In part it said:

I was dismayed to read … that (the organization) has invited replicas of two of Christopher Columbus’s sailing ships to Traverse City this weekend. The arrival of the original fleet and subsequent colonization was a catastrophe for indigenous people in the Americas, leading to disease, death, and enslavement.

The Doctrine of Discovery, which underpinned this colonization, has been repudiated by, among others, the Bishops of the Episcopal Church and the Synods of the United Church of Christ and the Christian Reformed Church…

I have really appreciated being part of a great educational enterprise… But my conscience won’t allow me to be part of an organization that uses its standing in the community in such an insensitive way. I’m sorry, but I have to resign my membership.

The president wrote back:

We regret your resignation… and feel an explanation is needed. As you know we are a maritime heritage organization dealing with maritime history.The boats in question are caravel construction and thus unique examples of that history. That is why we offered to host them. Upon hearing of the impact of this visit on the local indigenous population we immediately opened dialog with them. The result is that MHA is providing a tent, chairs and tables for use by members of the tribe as well as assistance with the necessary permit from the city. Our relationship with them has been cordial with both of us seeing this as an important educational opportunity to educate the public regarding the impact of Columbus’s voyage on the indigenous population.

I replied thanking him for the swift response, and added:

This is part of the history: Niña and Pinta arrived in places with strong indigenous communities. When those traveling on the Niña reached what we now call the Bahamas, Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Cuba they raped and captured Taíno women and sold them as commodities.

In 1494, at the end of the second voyage, and still having found no gold, Columbus sent his men to capture Taíno men, women and children to be enslaved and taken back to Spain as trophies. 500 were put on the ships, but half died at sea. On arrival in Spain the survivors were paraded naked and were put up for sale by a church leader.

The invasion laid the foundation for the Taíno population centers to be remade as Spanish colonial cities. The community destruction was rationalized by an ideology that indigenous people were not fully human. We see echoes of that ideology to this day, focused on various people groups.

Twenty-five years after Niña and Pinta first arrived, the Taíno population was reduced by 90%, through killing, through the harsh effects of slavery and mainly through smallpox carried by the Europeans, to which the locals had no immunity.

It truly was a catastrophe for a People. I’m all for sharing wonder at architecture, on land or water, but to focus, for instance, on the caravel construction of the ships without giving similar emphasis to the human dimensions would be like a guided tour of a concentration camp that focuses on the engineering efficiency of the gas ovens without a mention of their purpose.

I am sure the board will take time to reflect on what it has learned from this whole experience. Tough experiences are often the most effective teachers, because they require deep soul-searching, but they can often lead to transforming change…

I think in its enthusiasm, the board caught a hot potato with this “opportunity.” Did no one say, “Hey, wait a moment, this is a sensitive area. Let’s not jump in so fast?” Was there any kind of serious conversation about hosting symbols of genocide and what the impact might be on (the organization) and the Great Lakes communities it serves?

The strategic focus of (the organization) is on shipping in the Great Lakes, and in particular, through Madeline, on that history. It does a really good job of hands-on training and education for volunteers and it passes on knowledge to locals and visitors. The hot potato that the board caught was a distraction from that focus. Thankfully, Columbus and his ships didn’t make it into the Great Lakes. This is a particular blessing for the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, who are still here and who wouldn’t be, if the crews had sent them off looking for gold…

By not ‘sticking to the knitting’ and by taking on this project, the board took (the organization) into territory where it doesn’t have the expertise or the capacity to do what is needed, in terms of planning, consultation, and partnership. I know the capacity isn’t there, by the fact that it’s challenging enough to get a crew together for a sail in the bay. Pulling off an educational experience that is respectful to all parties and survivors in today’s climate would be a miracle…

Your mentioned opening dialog with the local indigenous population, but only ‘upon hearing of the impact of this visit.’ That suggests to me that they, and other stakeholders, weren’t involved at the earliest stage, when you were discussing whether or not this was a feasible (or right) project to take on…

It also gives rise to the appearance that the Grand Traverse Band has to tell the human and ethical dimension of the role of the original ships, while (the organization) focuses on the physical structure and hospitality to the community of Traverse City locals and visitors. Recent publicity reinforces that perception. WWMT (TV station) quotes … the captain of the ships drawing a clear distinction between his crew’s tasks: “to teach about the ships themselves and life aboard them” and his perception of the Grand Traverse Band’s work:

“They are more than welcome to come down and share their knowledge about things that happened back in the day.”

His condescending and entitled tone confirms my worst fears…

People understand that mistakes happen, particularly when we are carried away with enthusiasm. Our focus can get too narrow, and we fail to take into account the implications of our actions. The board members.. are giving up their time to volunteer for an organization that they care about, one that serves a local community. As humans, we don’t always get it right, but most of us are doing the best we can.

One of my hopes for a long-term outcome would be a deep relationship between (the organization) and the local indigenous community – one based on mutual respect and a dose of humility on the part of MHA. We have different things to learn from each other, and differing needs for support. This will probably be helped by an apology from the board to the tribe, and the wider community, for any hurt caused. Then it will be time to put the wraps on the boats, refocus on the mission, and make plans for another year.

On the Saturday that the ships were in the harbor I walked down to talk to two young Anishinaabe women sitting in a tent that the organization had provided for the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians to tell the human part of the story. The organization had labeled it “The Indigenous Perspective.” I thought it would have been more appropriately labeled “The Human Perspective.” I told the young women what had been on my mind all week. By this time, tears were streaming down my cheeks. They thanked me. I don’t know why, because they are the ones who deserve thanks. It’s not their responsibility to educate European Americans about our history, but they took it on.

I wrote a piece for the local paper, but it was not published. I didn’t receive a response to my second letter to the organization, either. It was over as quickly as it began. My concern and I were peripheral, just like the tent and table for the Anishinaabe women: off to the side. No willingness to engage with me on any of the issues.

And yet I have a clear sense of having been used by God that week. I thought that, in old Quaker language, we carried concerns, but my experience that week is that a concern carried me. It picked me up by the scruff of the neck, gave me words and actions. I was faithful, and then what had been given to me was done. I will probably never know if anything that I wrote or said made a difference, but I do believe that I was faithful, and I can only hope that seeds were planted somewhere.

Good News Associate Margaret Fraser currently serves at Interim Pastor of Reedwood Friends Church in Portland, Oregon