The ‘Birth Of The Americas’ Runs Red With The Blood Of My People
Continuing the legacy of columbus is to continue a false narrative of this nation’s history, and to erase slavery, genocide, and mass rape.
I can still clearly remember the mnemonic device I was taught in my Oklahoma elementary school to learn the “facts” about christopher columbus: In 1492, columbus sailed the ocean blue . . . On it goes to glorify his so-called discovery of america* and us “Indians.”
The version of the song has changed, and has a bit more accuracy since my schoolyard days, but it still ignores the reality of who columbus was: a genocidal, mass raping, torturing white man who is responsible for beginning the transatlantic slave trade.
Celebrating columbus, and his blood-stained legacy, is a slap in the face to all Indigenous People like myself, as well as Black People, who are still suffering from the repercussions of his colonialism. By continuing to force feed a false narrative of a heroic explorer who risked life and limb to prove the world wasn’t flat, the U.S. is denying that the birth of the “Americas” runs red with the blood of my people.
Celebrating columbus, and his blood-stained legacy, is a slap in the face to all Indigenous People like myself.
I refuse to recognize columbus day as a holiday. I boycott all businesses that hold columbus day sales. As a writer, I will not follow grammar rules and capitalize his name. I advocate for the government to no longer recognize this holiday and to instead celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day. Taking part in these actions are small but important steps toward recognizing that white people and other settlers have been able to immigrate to the U.S. because of what has been taken, and continues to be taken, from Indigenous People.
Indigenous Peoples Day: A History And Reflection
Indigenous Peoples Day was first introduced as International Solidarity Day with American Indians at the 1977 United Nations International NGO Discrimination Against Indigenous Populations in the Americas conference. This was a radical act at the time, and given the current treatment in the U.S. and across the world of Indigenous People, it can be argued that it still is.
Berkeley, California became the first city to officially make the switch from columbus day to Indigenous Peoples Day in 1992. Since then, many cities have followed suit: Seattle; Minneapolis; Cambridge; Denver; Boulder; Phoenix; Santa Fe; Lawrence, Kansas; Portland, Oregon; Anadarko, Oklahoma; and Bexar County in Texas, with more cities considering the change every year and several states either not recognizing columbus day or celebrating their own version of Indigenous Peoples Day.
Not every city that has brought up a vote to wipe columbus from their future has moved in the right direction, though. Last Wednesday, Cincinnati―where five of the City Council Members were too cowardly to own their racism and colonialism and abstained from voting on the measure―rejected Indigenous Peoples Day. The irony that Ohio is home to a city named after columbus, and the extremely racist Cleveland Indians, is not lost on me.
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Oklahoma City, meanwhile, recently rejected this move for the second year in a row with a vote of 6–3 against. This move is particularly upsetting, because Oklahoma is where I’m from and has the second highest Native population in the U.S.―and my Cherokee ancestors did not migrate to Oklahoma of their own choosing. We were forced there―along with the Muskogee Creek, Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Seminole―over the course of a year on what is known as the The Trail of Tears. This removal and genocide was masterminded by President andrew jackson, also known as the “Indian Killer,” so that the U.S. Government could further the colonization of our lands and the subsequent slavery of Africans. It’s estimated that 4,000 of my ancestors died on their way to what was then known as “Indian Territory.” There’s no way of knowing how many of our women were raped by the U.S. military during this forced removal. We were told that this land would be ours, but as is the continued way of the U.S. government, they took this from us too. Not even 100 years later, they opened “Indian Territory” up for white settlers for what’s known as the Oklahoma Land Run.
Just as I can clearly remember the song about columbus, I can remember participating in “land run day” at my elementary school. I dressed up in a red cotton dress that had small yellow flowers with a matching bonnet that my grandma made so I could look like one of those white colonizers. We had races on what we called the “black top”―which was just a tar-topped open area without trees or toys for us low-income rural kids―to see who could steal, I mean claim, the land first.
Several years later, in my ninth-grade Oklahoma history class, our book only had half a page covering the Trail of Tears and numerous pages covering the land run. That’s what institutional racism truly is.
Liberal Racist Excuses For The Celebration Of Genocide
Armed with a college degree, four years in Los Angeles, and the knowledge of what U.S. history really looked like, I moved to the northeast for work and graduate school. Over the course of approximately 12 years, I lived in Providence, Boston, and New York City. I was blown away by how much even ostensibly liberal people loved their pilgrims, columbus day, and thanksgiving. Driving down the Mass Pike for the first time, I was dumbfounded to see one sign after another with pilgrim hats on them. I grew up being told that this was the land of those “damn liberal Yankees.” Little did I know that these liberal Yankees really loved their Native genocide.
One of the assumptions about columbus day is that the people embracing it are largely conservative. But this simply isn’t true; in fact, many liberals have worked to keep it alive, on the grounds that to change it would be discriminatory toward Italian-Americans. Indeed, this is what some of the city council members in Cleveland claimed when they voted against the change to Indigenous Peoples Day.
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The first person to tell me that columbus day was about Italian-American heritage was my roommate. He was raised in a New England, Democratic household. He claimed to be a liberal, as so many of the self-righteous, bigoted New Englanders I encountered believed they were. We were discussing our upcoming week and he exclaimed how excited he was to have a paid day off from work. When I expressed my discontent with the holiday, he looked me straight in the face and told me that I was “overreacting,” and that the holiday was about celebrating his Italian heritage. I was utterly stupefied. During this conversation, he also called me the racist and misogynistic “squaw”**. I wish that I could say this was my only experience with this level of abuse in the northeast, but in truth, it’s just one example.
While living in New York City, I was amazed to learn that the city not only had a columbus day parade, but was the first in the U.S. to start this horrific travesty. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has repeatedly boasted about this pathetic display of racism and colonialism and how it celebrates:
“the achievements of those who came before us―immigrants who faced untold hardships throughout history, yet persevered to build the world we inhabit today . . . As the grandchild of four Italian immigrants, I am extremely proud of my heritage and the values of family, hard work, and the promise of American opportunity that my grandparents passed along . . . May we follow their example and leave a New York State that is even better for our children.”
When I read this, I wonder whose children this man steeped in white and settler privilege really cares about? Because it clearly isn’t the Indigenous children of New York. This argument ignores all that Native People have had taken from us so that he and other immigrants can prosper. He has this “right” because of every Indigenous and Black Person who has been harmed due to columbus.
Coincidentally, until very recently, the New York town of Whitesboro (a rather fitting name) had a town seal of a white man strangling an Oneida Man. It literally took national outrage to get the town to change the seal.
My mom is white―primarily German, Swedish, and Dutch. I recognize her white ancestry every bit as much as I do my Cherokee culture. I would never deny my family members and our history. Good or bad, it’s part of who I am. I understand that my European relatives underwent hardships coming here―but I would never dream of honoring them with the celebration of hitler. Both hitler and columbus are responsible for genocide, and hitler even based the concentration camps off the U.S.-created reservation system―and yet we’re taught in our U.S. history classes that hitler was evil and columbus was the epitome of masculinity: a heroic conqueror.
Over the years, I’ve been called pocahont*s, redsk*n, inj*n, squ*w, prairie n*gger, and a great deal more. As I’m writing this, I’m sitting in my chosen home of the district of “colombia,” the home of the redsk*ns. I’ve been fetishized and erased, as if we Native People no longer existed. I’ve had my health, job, and safety put at risk because of a racist and colonialist legacy that so many celebrate today.
For some, columbus day may just be another day, but this is symbolic of something so much more significant. It’s a symbol of the discrimination and violence I still experience as a Native Woman, and that my community experiences, too.
For some, columbus day may just be another day, but this is symbolic of something so much more significant.
Cuomo and all white people are allowed to feel pride in their heritage, but not at the expense of the oppressed and marginalized. Continuing the legacy of columbus is to continue a false narrative of this nation’s history and to erase the slavery, genocide, mass rape, and theft of our land, language, religion, and culture to benefit them. It ignores what we continue to face, including the militarized violence we’re enduring even at this very minute at the hands of the state at Standing Rock and the U.S. government’s continual blatant disregard for treaties via the U.S. Court of Appeals Sunday ruling allowing the Dakota Access Pipeline construction to continue on sacred sites.
I truly pity my ex-roommate, Governor Cuomo, and all those who aren’t evolved enough to celebrate their heritage beyond that of a mass-raping, slave-trading, sex-trafficking murderer with a bad sense of direction.
*”america,” is purposely not capitalized, and I often refer to as “ameriKKKa.” “hitler” has also purposely been left uncapitalized.
**I normally spell derogatory words used toward Native Women and People with an asterisk in them in order to convey that these are unacceptable to use. In the instance of “squaw,” I made an exception because I realize that some readers, in particular those raised and living outside the U.S., may not recognize the word without it spelled fully at least once.
***A version of this piece also appears at Autostraddle.