On Columbus Day, and Making Things Right

Workshop Teepees at the Black Hills Unity Concert, August 30 2015.

Where are you from? Who are the people who are indigenous to that land?

I grew up in Indianapolis, Indiana. Despite the state’s name, I didn’t know the answer to the second question until a few weeks ago. After 12 years of public school in Indiana and living close to 2/3 of my life there, I could not name the original inhabitants of a state my family has called home for 3–6 generations on each side.

I am embarrassed by this fact, but I’m not alone. Despite the national myths we tell about the first inhabitants of this beautiful continent, most non-native Americans know little to nothing about the people indigenous to this land. The names are all around us: Chicago, Michigan, Oklahoma. Yet who among us can name the original inhabitants of Chicago (or that the place name is most likely derived from the Miami term for “wild onion”)? Who knows that Michigan is from the Objiwa word for “large lake”? Or that the name Oklahoma is derived from Choktaw and means “red people”, or that the state itself was originally set aside completely for the forced relocation of native peoples from other parts of the country?

I was asked the question “who are the people indigenous to the place where you are from?” at a recent workshop called “Towards Right Relationship” that I attended as part of a three-day Native-led gathering in South Dakota, the Black Hills Unity Concert. The question stopped me in my tracks. I’ve been committed to social justice causes for as long as I can remember. I’ve done work with indigenous people in Central and South America … in fact, it’s the main focus of the current work of my organization. I know that the name of my neighborhood in Oakland, California — Temescal — is the Aztec word for sauna/sweatlodge. I know the Ohlone were the native inhabitants of the Bay Area, where I now make my home. So how could I possibly not know — not to mention never stop to wonder — the names of the original inhabitants of the city where I spent my child and teenage years?

This is an individual question, but it has societal implications. My childhood included Camp Tecumseh, Mohawk Elementary School and Miami University in neighboring Ohio. I remember learning about Pilgrims and Indians working together for the first Thanksgiving. I remember learning about the resourcefulness of Sacagewea who traveled with Lewis and Clark. But I don’t remember learning exactly who the native peoples of our land were. It’s possible we did, especially in 4th grade Indiana history. But it didn’t stick. I know where the settlers came from — Great Britain, Germany, Poland, and many more. I remember many other aspects of Indiana history. But not that one crucial one. Why?

I can’t claim to know why, but I have my hunches. I believe that the broader US culture exerts enormous pressure not to think about the past, not to seek the names of those who came before. It’s so much easier to reconcile history if you suffer from the illusion that there simply weren’t so many Indians in the first place. It’s so much easier to justify taking land when you can pretend no one already lived there.

All across the US, the native inhabitants of this land are represented by stereotypes, offensive sport team mascots, historical myths (see Thanksgiving, Pocahontas), and boxed-in, dead-end “reservations.” But most frequently, in the mainstream American discourse, native peoples are not represented at all. They are simply invisible, their contributions, their cultures, their language, their survival, their existence — made invisible. We non-native Americans have a vague sense they were once here — and we appropriate whatever symbols of culture appeal to us, from moccasins to feather headdresses — but we don’t publicly recognize those who are still very much alive, we don’t recognize them as original inhabitants, we don’t teach our children who they were, we don’t even know their names.

The workshop Towards Right Relationship focuses on covering — in a very abbreviated way — the 500+ years of violence, manipulation, war and just plain bad-faith negotiations of how people of European descent treated the native peoples of this land. It is a devastating history, one of lies, manipulation, broken treaties, massacres and cultural genocide. To participate in the workshop is to sit with the sadness and pain of five centuries of tragedy, and millions (an estimated 80–95% of the population prior to Columbus’ arrival) dead from disease, warfare, death marches, starvation and more. One of the facts that was emphasized was how few of us know the full history — including such a simple fact as who, specifically, was on the land we later came to inhabit.

What we focus our attention upon matters. What we publicly venerate and publicly denounce shapes our morals and values. These provide contour to culture, the invisible guidelines of what is and is not acceptable.

And that brings us to Columbus Day

Observed the second Monday of October, Columbus Day is a federal holiday celebrated in most of the United States. The date is chosen for the October 12 landing of Columbus and his ships in the Americas in 1492. There is a growing movement to ditch Columbus Day, and celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day instead. The proposal has passed city ordinances in Berkeley, Minneapolis, Seattle, and elsewhere. This is a change that is gaining traction. USA Today reports that 9 new cities will celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day today for the first time.

Why does this matter? Because changing the holiday is one way in which we can begin to make things right. There is no arguing against the fact that Christopher Columbus had a profound impact on human history. Even if he didn’t “discover” the Americas, even if he really just failed — spectacularly — to find the Indian subcontinent, there is no doubt that the arrival of his ships in the islands of the Caribbean was an event that has shaped the course of human history. But is it something we should celebrate?

Let’s allow Columbus speak for himself. Here’s an excerpt from his journal, from his first trip to the Caribbean and based on his encounters with the Arawak people:

They … brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things, which they exchanged for the glass beads and hawks’ bells. They willingly traded everything they owned… . They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features…. They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron. Their spears are made of cane… . They would make fine servants…. With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.

The quote — and others like it — is a tough pill to swallow, particularly knowing how effectively Columbus achieved his vision. The history of the conquest of the Americas is not pretty. And yet, for me, it is part of my birthright. How do I reconcile this?

The workshop for Towards Right Relationship ultimately gave me hope. We cannot heal the wounds of history if we are not willing to look at the true pain and suffering encoded in the historical record. We cannot change the past, what has been done. But neither do we have to be defined by it. One thing that must be emphasized, as we look at the historical record, is that the wrongs of the past are not our fault. We’re not responsible for the conquest of the Americas, for the rape and violence committed by Columbus’ men, for the treaties signed by the US government in the past and betrayed, again and again, as the proud nations of North America were picked apart. We didn’t do those things — they are not our fault.

But it is our duty to make things right. We cannot change the past, but we can make things right in the present, thereby creating the possibility of a more just and peaceful future. There are probably a thousand and one ways we can do so. For me, one of those steps was learning more — about the Miami, Potowatami, Shawnee, Lenape and more, all of whom lived in Indiana at various points before being pushed out and to the margins. For you that might mean learning more about the people indigenous to your hometown. For our country as a whole, I believe that making things right will involve a larger scale truth and reconciliation process, to give space for truth-telling, healing and dialogue, centuries in the making.

On this day, let’s begin by shifting our attention away from Columbus, and towards indigenous people. And then search within — how else can you make it right? Here are some options:

Lyla June at the Black Hills Unity Concert, August 29, 2015.

This is just the beginning. To me, this seems like the journey of a lifetime, to transform our society from one which observes Columbus Day into one that observes Indigenous People’s Day. At the point at which that switches, we’ll know we will have accomplished much more than a symbolic change — because to change the object of celebration is to bear witness to centuries of injustice, and to change our fundamental conception of the history of this land. Today’s the second Monday of October. In most of the US, Columbus Day is being observed. What do you wish to celebrate, today?