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Politicizing Columbus Day

By Robert Jensen | teleSUR | October 11, 2015

Although the movement to stop honoring Christopher Columbus with a holiday is gaining support, most of white America would prefer to avoid the subject.

“Why does everything always have to be political with you?” a colleague asked, as I was railing against the U.S. federal holiday honoring Christopher Columbus.

The subject came up after the news that my modest hometown of Fargo, North Dakota, is considering a proposal to declare the second Monday of October “Indigenous People’s Day” instead of the traditional Columbus Day. Last year, Seattle and Minneapolis became the first major American cities to endorse the shift, and a movement is slowly building across the country, with the hope of one day having the federal holiday renamed.

Why make a simple long-weekend holiday a political issue? I’m not “making” it political — how we describe our history and who we claim as heroes are inescapably political because it reflects how we understand the world, and those choices reflect our values. If we want to live in a meaningful democracy, that’s politics — arguing about the values that shape public policy.

Some people dismiss such disputes as merely symbolic, but words and symbols matter. When I was growing up in Fargo, in school we sang the ditty that begins, “In fourteen-hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue,” which goes on to happily explain, “The Arakawa natives were very nice; they gave the sailors food and spice.” What did Columbus give those natives back? Slavery and death, mostly. The unsavory deeds of “The Great Mariner” may be unpleasant for the non-Indigenous inhabitants of the United States (such as me) to ponder, but it is a crucial part of our history whether we like it or not: Christopher Columbus initiated, and participated in, the European genocidal campaign against the Indigenous people of the Americas.

Although the movement to stop honoring Columbus with a holiday is gaining support, most of white America would prefer to avoid the subject, often suggesting that we find less provocative language to talk about Columbus and the conquest. In classes at the University of Texas at Austin, I make the point that there is no escape from making judgments about history by putting on the screen a simple sentence with a request that students fill in the blank:

“Columbus __________ America.”

When I was a grade-school student in the mid-1960s in Fargo, we filled in the blank with “discovered,” a word with political implications. If we say Columbus discovered America, we imply that other humans had yet to set foot on the island of Hispaniola, since a claim to discover something is a claim to be the first person to arrive. But since Columbus found the island inhabited by the Arawak-speaking Taino people, asserting that he and the other Europeans with him discovered America suggests that the Taino were not fully human, not capable of discovery. To use the word “discovered” in this context, then, is racist and ethnocentric. There is a politics to the choice of “discovered.”

Sometimes students will respond that “discovered” is just shorthand for “was the first European to discover.” But if that’s what is meant, then why not use the full phrase? Is it really crucial to save those five words? And if that is the case, would we be just as likely to describe the first Indigenous Americans’ trip to Europe by saying those folks discovered Europe? Even in the most charitable interpretation, the claim that “Columbus discovered America” is European-centric, and that is a political stance.

When I ask students to suggest another term, some come back with “conquered,” “colonized,” “destroyed,” or similar terms. A strong case can be made for choosing such words (I often use them myself), but they just as clearly have political implications, primarily a judgment that the actions of Columbus and other Europeans were immoral, illegal, or illegitimate in some fashion. There are obvious political judgments in the choice of those terms.

Students then offer a variety of terms that, on the surface, seem to avoid judgment: “encountered,” “engaged with,” or — my favorite of all the ones ever offered in class — “stumbled upon.” But those words, despite the appearance of neutrality, also carry a politics. I offer the students an analogy: Suppose some folks from another neighborhood roll into your part of town, make their way through the houses of you and your neighbors, steal everything of value, and kill or work to death everyone. Would you say that those newcomers “encountered” or “stumbled upon” your neighborhood? Such a seemingly neutral term would obscure the violence, and therefore would favor the marauders.

There’s no escape from history, nor from being responsible for the judgments we inevitably make about history.

This controversy is part of a larger problem in the United States, where people tend to be selective about how they use history. When people want to invoke some grand and glorious aspect of the past, then history is all-important. We are told how crucial it is for people to know history, and there is much hand wringing about the current generation’s lack of knowledge about, and respect for, that history. In the United States, we hear constantly about the wisdom of the Founding Fathers, the spirit of the early explorers, the determination of those who “settled” the country, the heroism of soldiers — and about how crucial it is for everyone to learn about these things.

But when one brings to a discussion of history those facts that contest the celebratory story and make people uncomfortable — such as the nearly complete genocide of Indigenous people that was at the center of the creation of the United States — those same history-lovers will say, “Why do you insist on dwelling on the past?”

So, it appears that those parts of our history that prop up our sense of ourselves as a noble and righteous people are the proper focus of study and public comment; what’s important to know is what can be celebrated to make ourselves feel good. Those who also want to include in that discussion the uglier aspects of our past are accused of looking to cause trouble.

If by trouble, people mean trying to stimulate an honest conversation about how the United States came to be the most affluent nation in the history of the world, then I endorse trouble-making. An important step in understanding the violence of the United States around the world today is coming to terms with the violence of our past. As William Faulkner wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

So, when the Fargo City Commission takes up the Indigenous People’s Day proposal on the recommendation of the city’s Native American Commission at its next meeting — which happens to be Monday (October 12), on Columbus Day — I’ll be taking the opportunity to talk politics, past and present.

Robert Jensen is a professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center in Austin. His books include Plain Radical: Living, Loving, and Learning to Leave the Planet Gracefully (Counterpoint/Soft Skull, 2015); and The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism and White Privilege (City Lights, 2005); Jensen is also co-producer of the documentary film “Abe Osheroff: One Foot in the Grave, the Other Still Dancing” (Media Education Foundation, 2009), which chronicles the life and philosophy of the longtime radical activist.

Jensen can be reached at rjensen@austin.utexas.edu and his articles can be found online at http://robertwjensen.org/. To join an email list to receive articles by Jensen, go to http://www.thirdcoastactivist.org/jensenupdates-info.html. Twitter: @jensenrobertw.

October 11, 2015 Posted by | Ethnic Cleansing, Racism, Zionism, Solidarity and Activism, Timeless or most popular | , , | 1 Comment

9 U.S. cities abolish Columbus Day in favor Indigenous Peoples’ Day

RT | October 10, 2015

Nine cities in states across the US have pressed for resolutions to recognize October 12 as Indigenous Peoples’ Day rather than Columbus Day. Eight of those cities passed resolutions in the last two months and three adopted a resolution just this week.

The City Council of Albuquerque, New Mexico voted six to three on Thursday to recognize October 12 as Indigenous Peoples’ Day in a new proclamation:

Albuquerque recognizes the occupation of New Mexico’s homelands for the building of our City and knows indigenous nations have lived upon this land since time immemorial and values the process of our society accomplished through and by American Indian thought, culture, technology.”

The proclamation noted 500 years of Indian resistance since the arrival of Christopher Columbus and marked the day “in an effort to reveal a more accurate historical record of the ‘discovery’ of the United States of America,” and to “recognize the contributions of Indigenous peoples despite enormous efforts against native nations.”

On October 7, the City Council of Lawrence, Kansas supported efforts from students from Haskell University to have the city honor their ancestors by declaring October 12 Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

On Tuesday, Portland’s City Council also declared Indigenous Peoples’ Day, something tribal leaders have been seeking since 1954, as did the City Council of Bexas County, Texas, according to US Uncut. Local San Antonio activists are pressing for the same.

In August, lawmakers in St. Paul, Minnesota declared that October 12 was to be Indigenous Peoples’ Day rather than Columbus Day. The city of Minneapolis passed their resolution a year ago.

Minneapolis City Councilwoman Alondra Cano, who represents the diverse 9th Ward, told RT that tribal councils and indigenous peoples have been raising awareness about the myths of Christopher Columbus and his legacy since the civil rights movement. Through that work, they were able to connect to young people who, during a mayoral forum in 2013, asked candidates if they would support Indigenous Peoples’ Day instead of Columbus Day. Current Mayor Betsy Hodges pledged she would.

“It is important to recognize there is a strategy on the ground. There is organizing that happened to help advance these policy agendas at the city council level,” said Cano.

In September, Anadarko, Oklahoma’s proclamation was signed while surrounded by leaders from the Apache, Choctaw, Delaware, and Wichita tribes, among others.

Meanwhile, Mayor Matt Waligora of Alpena, Michigan said the city wants “to develop a strong and productive relationship with all indigenous peoples, including the Saginaw Chippewa Tribe, based on mutual respect and trust.”

Olympia, Washington also supported a name change resolution in August, joining Bellingham.

In March, the Newstead Town Council in Erie County, New York voted to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day after being petitioned by their local high school lacrosse team, the Arkon Tigers.

In New York this weekend, the Redhawk Native American Arts Council will bring together over 500 indigenous American artists, educators, singers and dancers from 75 different nations on Randall’s Island in New York for a Native American Festival and pow-wow. It is the first pow-wow to be held in Manhattan.

On Monday, organizer Cliff Matias said they would celebrate Indigenous People’s Day and recognize America’s earliest native tribes.

Not so much an anti-Columbus Day but a celebration of indigenous peoples’ culture,” Matias told RT. “It is 500 years and we are still here to share our culture, so that’s pretty amazing. If you look at Columbus’ journey here, and the colonization, and the genocide, and the slavery he brought to this hemisphere, we probably weren’t supposed to make it 500 years later, but our traditions, our culture, they are here.”

Matias said making it an official holiday in New York will take a lot of negotiating, but he intends to capture people’s hearts first and their minds later. The population of indigenous groups in New York is small, unlike places like Seattle and Minneapolis.

Then there is a large population of Italian Americans who for some reason align themselves with this idea of Columbus being an Italian American,” said Matias. “He never made it out of the Caribbean, and was sent back to face charges. So even then Columbus was seen as a criminal who filled his ships with rapists, murders and thieves. We are hoping to generate some interest that Columbus is not a great representative. I always say they should have Frank Sinatra Day.”

In 1990, the state of South Dakota, with its large Dakota Nation, established Native Americans’ Day on the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ so-called founding of America, in order to rename the day for the great Native American leaders who contributed so much to the history of the state. Berkeley, California began their Indigenous Peoples’ Day in 1992.

It took the city of Seattle until October 2014 for the council to declare Indigenous Peoples’ Day. The news was heralded by the sound of drums and loud cheers, and an impromptu singing of the American Indian Movement song in City Hall.

Educator Matt Remle from the Lakota tribe led the effort there, which required five years of negotiating with tribal councils before a resolution could be written, but he said the biggest catalyst has been the use of the internet in native communities.

“With native communities utilizing the internet and social media to tell essentially our own stories, The Last Real Indians [website] was started with the basic idea that native issues, Indian issues, are seldom if ever covered in mainstream media,” he said.

“So instead of trying to bang on their doors… we just do it ourselves as native peoples. So what you’ve probably been seeing over the past several years is natives capitalizing on that, and being able to tell our own stories and to reach …. globally.

Remle said that after Seattle recognized Indigenous Peoples’ Day, other cities reached out to petition for the same celebration.

October 10, 2015 Posted by | Ethnic Cleansing, Racism, Zionism, Solidarity and Activism, Timeless or most popular | , , | 4 Comments