Yesterday, the United States celebrated Columbus Day in honor of Christopher Columbus, credited with “discovering” America. But Christopher Columbus did not discover anything; there were already people living peacefully in what is now the United States. It was not until after the arrival of Christopher Columbus that eager European nations instituted systematic practices of genocide to exterminate the native peoples of the Americas–the most famous of these bloody massacres being known as the Trail of Tears.
And so, these native Americans were forced further and further West until they could go no further because all that was further West was the ocean. And, with the chemical warfare of poisoned smallpox blankets and “firewhiskey,” the native population was nearly exterminated, today’s surviving remnants sequestered to reservations a fraction of the former size of the land once occupied by the native peoples and in direct opposition to the native life philosophy—a way of life grounded on the cyclical migration through open spaces because land, like the sun or the water or the air, could not be owned by any one person but was simply shared by all.
Why, I wonder, do we set aside a national holiday to honor genocide?
African Americans have long called for reparations owed to due 400 years of the global transatlantic slave trade, slavery and legal apartheid that ended a scant 50 years ago in the United States. Indeed, this is why Spike Lee named his film production company 40 acres a mule—the promise America made to the freed slaves immediately after the end of American slavery. But little has been done to create awareness for the reparations owed the original, native Americans. This silence makes a sad kind of sense: could we expect any less in a culture where pro sports teams still feel the right to call themselves the Washington Redskins? Where my own high school, despite ongoing student-led protests, called itself the Arcadia Apaches?
We have to do better. We have to be better. For, when you consider the loaded history of systematic genocide that the native Americans have endured throughout our nation’s history, cleared out like felled forests to make way for our American manifest destiny, this continued disrespect of native American culture is not just sad, it is shameful.
So, if not reparations, can we start with simple respect? Can we say that names like the Washington Redskins are not okay? Can we think about what Columbus Day represents and perhaps choose to celebrate Indigenous People’s Day instead? And can we use that day to create a dialogue about racial sensitivity, to honor the native peoples who were systematically exterminated by this country and not the godfather of genocide himself?