This day celebrates an enemy

October 13, 2014

Today is the holiday known as "Columbus Day"--which we should observe by honoring the Native American resistance, past and present, writes Brian Ward.

They would make fine servants...With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want. Let us in the name of the Holy Trinity go on sending all the slaves that can be sold.

THE ABOVE quotation is from the diary of Christopher Columbus, explaining his thoughts about the Native population that he stumbled upon in the Caribbean. With such vile language and behavior toward the Native population, why do we still have a federal holiday dedicated to Christopher Columbus?

Recently, Seattle became the latest city to officially change Columbus Day to Indigenous People's Day, with a unanimous vote by the City Council.

Non-Natives in the country continue to tell Native Americans to "get over it" or "it happened in the past"--or my favorite: "I can't be held responsible for my ancestors." However, poverty and inequality run rampant in Native communities, and we still have museums and statues throughout this country, including a holiday in honor of Christopher Columbus. Not exactly "in the past," is it?

An 1893 rendition of Christopher Columbus arriving in the Americas
An 1893 rendition of Christopher Columbus arriving in the Americas

Until I was 6 years old, I lived in a small town in Wisconsin called Columbus. It's known for two things: having the closest Amtrak stop to Madison and a Christopher Columbus Museum. I never realized this as a kid, nor did I care. But one time, when I went back to Columbus, I saw the museum and realized how important the Columbus myth is to Americans. Here I was, in a 5,000-person town in the middle of the U.S., with a museum dedicated to Christopher Columbus.

The Columbus myth of discovery runs deep in American culture--and continues to silence Native Americans today.

MANY KIDS growing up in the U.S. learn the rhyme: "In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue." But there are ugly truths beyond the myth.

Columbus was an "explorer" who nobody wanted to hire. It took two years of courting the Spanish monarchs before he was given the opportunity to set sail. Most of his exploration was financed by Italian investors, and he had a lot of self-interest to make his voyages a success, since he would receive 10 percent of all revenues from the new lands. Columbus would also have the option of buying a one-eighth part in any commercial venture, thus receiving one-eighth of the profits.

What kids aren't taught is that when Columbus came to the Caribbean, he didn't "discover" anything. He was greeted by the Lucaya, Taino and Arawak people, who showed the Europeans hospitality and generosity.

Columbus immediately took prisoners and demanded that these people guide him to gold. He kidnapped 10 to 25 Natives to bring back to Spain--only seven survived the trip. You could call this the first Indian boarding school.

In his A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies, the Dominican friar Bartolomé de las Casas wrote about Columbus' source of income:

Slaves were the primary source of income for the Admiral [Columbus], with that income, he intended to repay the money the Kings were spending in support of Spaniards on the Island. They provide profit and income to the Kings. [The Spaniards were driven by] insatiable greed...killing, terrorizing, afflicting, and torturing the Native peoples...with the strangest and most varied new methods of cruelty.

Until the day he died, Columbus was adamant that he had landed in India--hence the name "Indians" given to the indigenous population. Columbus took three more trips to the "New World" and continued to pillage and enslave the people for profit and expansion.

COLUMBUS DAY has been celebrated in the U.S. since the 1700s, but it didn't become a federal holiday until 1937. Having a holiday for Columbus perpetuates a myth that Columbus "discovered" America, without acknowledging the genocide and enslavement that it took to build the economies and nation-states in the Western Hemisphere.

What exactly is the Columbus myth and why do those in power continue to perpetuate it?

The myth is that Columbus came to an untamed land, and his "discovery" of it was the next stage of progress for human civilization. This, of course, was European "civilization." European rulers were searching for more resources to continue to build their wealth. Of course, the myth doesn't discuss the bloodshed inflicted on the Native population of the Americas or the enslavement of millions of Africans as "civilization" expanded.

The ruling class in this country continued to benefit from the Columbus myth. The idea that the Native population had to be removed, assimilated and killed was extremely important to Westward expansion of the U.S. To this day, the Columbus myth is used to try to eliminate the history of Native people and their resistance on this continent. It has also been used as justification for invading countries around the world in the interest of "progress."

To see these myths in action, you can go to Washington, D.C., where two large monuments on the iconic National Mall are dedicated to slave owners (Washington and Jefferson), and the Capitol and White House were built by slaves on land stolen from the Piscataway Nation. These truths are rarely touched on during a typical tour of D.C.

In recent decades, there has been a movement to abolish Columbus Day and replace it with Indigenous People's Day, or Native American Day. In the early 1990s, with the 500th anniversary of Columbus' voyage approaching, Native Americans pushed many localities to change the holiday.

The most inspiring change happened in South Dakota, which has a Native American population of nearly 9 percent. In 1989, the South Dakota legislature unanimously voted for 1990 to be the year of reconciliation between Natives and non-Natives in the state--100 years after the Wounded Knee Massacre, in which over 150 Lakota men, women and children were gunned down indiscriminately by a U.S. cavalry regiment. Included in the legislation was the renaming of Columbus Day to "Native American Day."

This legislation, a small step in the right direction, didn't come about because the legislature was suddenly interested in Native rights. Rather, pressure from the growing American Indian Movement forced the issue. This movement, led by Native American people, helped shift consciousness around the real legacy of Columbus and Columbus Day. Every year on Columbus Day, there are a series of articles, protest and actions calling on federal government to change the holiday.

AS THE truth about Columbus and the "discovery" of America became known, right-wing movements have doubled down. Last month, in Jefferson County, Colo., the School Board attempted to pass a resolution that would alter advanced placement U.S. history courses. The resolution stated:

Materials should promote citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free enterprise system, respect for authority and respect for individual rights. Materials should not encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law. Instructional materials should present positive aspects of the United States and its heritage.

The School Board didn't anticipate what would happen next--hundreds of students walked out of five different high schools in the county to show their disgust.

Likewise, in 2013, Arizona passed SB 2281, which effectively banned ethnic studies courses in Arizona. The bill stated:

A school district or charter school in this state shall not include in its program of instruction any courses or classes that include any of the following:

1. Promote the overthrow of the United States government.
2. Promote resentment toward a race or class of people
3. Are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group.
4. Advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.

In addition to the bill, the Tucson, Ariz., school district banned books such as Rethinking Columbus by Bill Bigelow and Bob Peterson. Much like the Jefferson County, Colo., decision, there were walkouts and protest by students primarily of Chicano decent.

Changing the name of "Columbus Day" would be just one small step in providing justice for Native Americans in this country. Exposing Columbus and the history of genocide is imperative to changing a culture that views the injustices committed towards Natives as something that is only part of the past. Abolishing Columbus Day should be part of fulfilling the U.S. honoring its treaty obligations, but we also must end the practice of using Native lands as a dumping ground, say "no" to racist mascots such as the Washington football team, and say "yes" to reparations.

So today, we should say to each other: Happy Indigenous People's Day--and take this opportunity to learn and share something about the Native American resistance. Today, we should honor those who fought back: Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Geronimo, Blackhawk, Russell Means, Dennis Banks, Madonna Thunderhawk and so many more who continue to fight today.

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