On Monday, I sent my son to school on what would have been a holiday called Columbus Day when I was his age. I checked the school district website several times to be sure, but yes, it was just a normal school day. Despite being an "Indian”, as he called us, the sudden disappearance of a holiday dedicated to him left me feeling conflicted. As a child, when I first heard the rhyme, “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue” in kindergarten I had been deeply moved by the image of him braving the unknown in his small, wooden boat wearing a skirt and tights with high heels, willing to possibly sail off the edge of the world into the unknown assisted only by a crew of mutinous sailors who lost faith in him and were preparing to throw him overboard just as land was sighted.
It was my mother, a Navajo, who helped me understand more fully what Christopher Columbus meant. At home washing dishes, she explained how his arrival heralded the beginning of an invasion of our lands and she told me about Hweeldi, the Long Walk where the U.S. force marched Navajo people to a concentration camp. I could feel in the rhythm of her crisp and measured Navajo-accented voice her distress as she wiped the dishes with greater ferocity and bubbles went flying through the air, some landing on me, anointing me with that hard won knowledge my family had learned. I came to understand that this country for which I placed my tiny hand over my heart each day and swore, “with liberty and justice for all” was actually a country built upon the theft of my ancestor’s lands and freedom. I was only 5 years old, but my feelings towards Columbus had turned from respect to a sort burning rage any yes, hurt.
She did not at that time, of course, go into Columbus’ more horrific acts. He wrote chillingly in his journal on October 14, 1492, just three days after being greeted with kindness by the Lucayan people, “I could conquer the whole of them with fifty men and govern them as I pleased.” But how do you tell young children the truth about the exploits of this man? Is there a polite way of explaining that in his grasping quest for gold he ordered the cutting off the hands of Indians in Cicao who did not bring him enough tribute of gold every three months? That he had them wear their hands around their necks and 10,000 died handless? How 40,000 were shipped to Spain to be sold in the slave markets of Seville? Or how those that remained were worked to death? How do you tell children that in 1500 he wrote just eight years after he arrived, “A hundred castellanoes are as easily obtained for a woman as for a farm, and it is very general and there are plenty of dealers who go about looking for girls; those from nine to ten are now in demand.” How Indians, both babies and adults were used as dog food, sometimes fed alive to the Spaniards’ dogs. Within two years 250,000 people in Haiti were dead, some due to suicide with mothers taking their children’s lives before taking their own. How? The answer is obvious, you don’t tell children these stories about what happened after he stepped off the boat in the Bahamas. My elementary school teachers end the lesson on an upbeat note with the map of the world being completed and the sphere the proper shape of the Earth not flat all thanks to the incredible courage and foresight of Columbus. These terrible truths could be confronted when I was older, but one wonders why we had to learn about the man in such heroic terms if so much about him had to be hidden.
It was then that I began to feel my dual identity and grapple with it. An identity both as an “American” and as a members of my Native Nation. This sorrow and anger, still experienced as an almost physical pain by my mother and now, me is how the story of Columbus’ “discovery” still affects us—those who he misnamed “Indians.” Even those who lived faraway like the Navajo and have never seen the Caribbean. It is a dual identity that is not understood at all by the rest of America—not even by the Justices of the United State Supreme Court. In the recent Supreme Court case Adoptive Girl vs Adoptive Parents in June, Justice Alito opened his decision written for the majority with the statement, “This case is about a little girl (Baby Girl) who is classified as an Indian because she is 1.2% (3/256) Cherokee.” Despite the fact that eligibility for citizenship in the Cherokee Nation is not based on blood quantum. This misapprehension that citizenship in a Tribe is nothing but a racial classification and thus is racist has gained currency in recent years.
Ordinary Americans voiced their opinions in the same Supreme Court case in the comment sections of online articles, convinced they could judge the Adoptive Girl’s “Cherokee-ness” simply by her percentage of Indian blood and how she looked. Never mind, that she was 100% Cherokee just like they were 100% American. After all, you are either a citizen of a country or you are not. But this peculiar American obsession with classifying people as “mixed-blood” or “pure blood”, “black” or “white” is as natural to most Americans as the air they breath. They do not understand that Tribes are nations that persist despite 500 years of invasion. They only understand Tribes in the context of unfair money-making schemes (i.e. casinos) or an undeserved play for more rights than any other ethnic group.
And so after 40-plus years of the American Indian Movement, we “Indians” are still tucked away into the corners of the American consciousness and landscape. As seen in the recent film The Lone Ranger we exist only as a decrepit carnival side show displays (Johnny Depp’s Tonto). Especially now when words like Genocide have lost their power on the American consciousness after 30 years of a Conservative war against the language of “political correctness.” Especially since Americans are a people who are by their very definition a people who do not look backwards. The whole point of coming to America for most immigrants, is to escape a painful past. They come to our lands to fully embrace the promise of a New World “found” by an adventurer, empty, simply awaiting their industriousness. It is a story that provides no space to question how “Indians” got to be poor, except for at most a momentary feeling of sadness for the “Poor Noble Indian” that rides off into the sunset, and then the narrative moves on to the continued American project of “Progress”. This story of “pulling oneself up by ones bootstraps” is a strong one despite the reality that the United States has the lowest level of social mobility is in the Developed World and highest rate of child poverty.
The birth place of our modern Columbus Day holiday was in Colorado (coincidentally the state where I attended kindergarten) where it first became a state holiday in 1907. It was proposed by a local Italian-American newspaper publisher at a time when Italian-American’s faced great prejudice both as Catholics and as Southern Europeans. They embraced Columbus as a historical figure who could place them firmly in the story of the settling of America. Even today, some Italian Americans regard an attack on Columbus Day as an attack on their own culture and contributions to America. However, in an interview with journalist Amy Goodman in 2006, Glenn Spagnuolo, member of Transform Columbus Day Alliance and director of PITCH–Progressive Italians Transforming the Columbus Day Holiday, claimed Columbus is not admired in Italy or even in his hometown of Genoa. ”In Genoa, at the quincentennial, they actually tried to shut down the city, so a celebration wouldn’t occur there for tourists,” he said, “in Italy, he’s viewed as the scoundrel that he is.” I have no problem with appreciating Italian Americans, but let’s face it, there are better Italians out there than Columbus. We need to honor people of all nations that represent the best in humanity and the kind of people we can talk to our children honestly about without whitewashing their sins.
Some have expressed the concern about what would happen if we start down the road of holding our heroes up to the standards of today where does it end? What about the Founding Fathers who were slave holders? How would we judge them? The idea that people only acted in these immoral ways in the past because it was more acceptable then can seem reasonable until we consider what happened in Abu Ghraib in 2006. The shocking images of grinning thumbs up American soldiers (male and female) stacking naked bodies of hooded Iraqis up are a reminder that when one group has absolute power over another an amoral triumphalism can appear and people will do things reminiscent of Nazi treatment of prisoners in World War II. It shows that when one side has complete power over the other, when no one is looking, the brutality of Columbus and his men can still occur today, and even be perpetuated by modern Americans.
And even in that barbaric past there were individuals who stood up to this immorality. Individuals like Bartolomé de las Casas first Bishop of Chiapas who launched a 50-year human rights crusade to protect the “discovered” peoples in the New World from inhuman treatment. He was originally a slave trader but after seeing the atrocities of Columbus he had a change of heart. “Such inhumanities and barbarisms were committed in my sight as no age can parallel.” He wrote, “My eyes have seen these acts so foreign to human nature that now I tremble as I write.” [Italics mine for emphasis.] I can also cite many examples of criticism leveled at our slave-owning Founding Fathers as not morally reprehensible even for their own time period. In Thomas Jefferson’s case, we can contrast his slave owning to that of Founding Father Gouverneur Morris’ repulsion at the idea of calculating slaves as 3/5ths of a person in the Constitution, “The admission of slaves into the representation when fairly explained comes to this: that the inhabitant of Georgia and South Carolina who goes to the coast of Africa and, in defiance of the most sacred laws of humanity, tears away his fellow creatures from their dearest connections and damns them to the most cruel bondages, shall have more votes in a government instituted for the protection of the rights of mankind than the citizen of Pennsylvania or New Jersey who views with laudable horror so nefarious a practice.” [Italics mine]
In each case, men who lived at the same time did not regard the actions of our heroes as the moral norm and an uncritical assessment of these men puts us on the wrong side of history standing with slavers whose primary motivation was greed—monetary profit and the suffering of others. Indeed, after Jefferson discovered he was gaining a 4% profit every year through the birth of enslaved children after going through his bookkeeping he grew silent on the issue of emancipation. He even encouraged a friend to invest; “every farthing … in land and negroes, which besides a present support bring a silent profit of from 5. to 10. per cent in this country by the increase in their value.” The “silent profit” and “increase in their value” came from the sale of children born to enslaved women. Once again, I ask if people at the time argued against such atrocities why should Americans today support them? It makes no sense. And then there is Columbus who wrote, “Gold is the most precious of all commodities; gold constitutes treasure, and he who possesses it has all he needs in the world, as also the means of rescuing souls from purgatory, and restoring them to the enjoyment of paradise.” Once again, I ask what are we really saying when we hold such people up for honor? And what are we teaching our children by doing so?
And of course, there are those that argue that since some in this hemisphere practiced human sacrifice everyone in the New World deserved what happened to them. On the YouTube video “Reconsider Columbus Day” done in 2011 one commentator wrote, “Genocide? What genocide? Please show me any plans or malicious actions by Columbus. And, yes, you are honoring terrorist if you support those pagan religions that murdered women and children. Indians wiped out entire tribes of other Indians. Thank God Columbus saved them from that life.” Looking beyond the complete lack morality in such a statement, why are “Indians” not granted the suspension from present day value judgements like Columbus by these same apologists? Why is every Native person, even an infant, deprived of basic human rights because of the actions of some? Never mind that we have no way of verifying Columbus’ accusations of cannibalism against the people of the Caribbean as they were exterminated within a few decades and all knowledge we have of them comes from Columbus and his men.
Don’t the Lucayan people deserve to be accorded the same human rights every person in the world deserves by virtue of simply being human? And if Columbus lacked the character to do so, why shouldn’t we today? Why is it so impossible for us to recognize their humanity and not honor the architect of their holocaust? If Americans today are incapable of mustering the moral courage in the 21st century to do this, more than 520 years later, what does that say about our moral authority on the international stage? How can we judge Assad in Syria if we raise up Columbus? I mean, if he was alive today we would probably be threatening him with drone strikes, right? Yet, we give him a federal holiday.
Today only 22 states and Washington, DC pay their workers and give them the day off on Columbus Day, although it remains a federal holiday. Other states like South Dakota have changed the name to Native American Day and in Hawaii they celebrate Discoverers’ Day to honor the Polynesian navigators who discovered the islands. For me, it is a hopeful sign. I like the idea of a day that honors the survival of the Indigenous people. As a Navajo and Dakota woman, I can value the words Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence, “All men are created equal” and see how in my own life how it undid the old Aristotalian world view, “From the hour of their birth, some men are marked out for subjection, others for rule”—and fundamentally, changed my life. But I can also learn from the failings of the man who never freed the human beings he kept in bondage his entire life. A man who had children whipped to produce nails which he sold to pay for food he served at his own table cooked by enslaved chefs. A man who died in debt and whose families of slaves (some actually relatives) were put up for auction and split up, sold to different owners. This skill of disentangling truth from history is the greatest thing we can teach our children in order to build a better future. This is the greatest lesson that Columbus’ arrival in the Bahamas in 1492 can teach us.
So where do we go as Columbus Day continues to disappear? Perhaps we can learn from Truth and Reconciliation Commissions like the one that dealt with the painful legacy of racism in Greensboro, North Carolina. In 1979, Klu Klux Klan and Nazi party members attacked and killed five anti-racism protestors in Greensboro in front of four television news crews that videotaped the murders. All of the murders were acquitted. How do we begin the process of breaking down entrenched power structures which use acts of domestic terrorism to keep certain members of society “in their place”? In 1985, the families of the victims did win a landmark $350,000 civil judgement against the city. 20 years later, the community sought healing and began a Truth and Reconciliation Commission modeled on the ones in South Africa and brought racists and their victims to the table to talk and find common ground. As one shooting victim said, “Truth is not always beautiful.” As Rev. Nelson Johnson of the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission said, “I believe that the hope of our city [Greensboro] is not to run from its yesterdays but to face its yesterdays so that its yesterdays will not be its tomorrows.”
Therefore what we need is not only a name change of the federal holiday from Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day to honor a peoples’s hard won survival and cultural contributions to our world, but an exploration of our own of that painful history. We need to show our children we can look at “heroes” with clear eyes and use that clarity to build a society of which we can truly be proud and pass on to future generations. If my child stays home on this day to celebrate Indigenous People’s survival, I’d like him to attend one of these Truth and Reconciliation Commission meetings to learn what it means to face the past without fear and to see the world not in black and white terms. This is what I want from this day, not to go on as if nothing happened, not to simply no longer celebrate Columbus but to honor the deaths of millions in this hemisphere and make it mean something. Perhaps then, someday, my children can explain what happened after Columbus reached our shores to their children not simply as a painful truth as my mother did but as a lesson our society has learned. Because it is in that learning that our true humanity is expressed across all the barriers of “race”, time and of blue oceans, now, today, and every day.