Saturday, April 26, 2014

Columbus Day No More!

Columbus Day has been “set aside” in Minneapolis and the day (the second Monday in October) will now be known as Indigenous People’s Day.
by Charlie Leck
In-dig-e-nous [in-dij-uh-nuh s]
1. Originating in and characteristic of a particular region/country
2. native
3. innate, inherent; natural (usually followed by to)
“people indigenous to North America”
There have been plenty of unfavorable opinions expressed about Columbus Day in the last thirty years or so. When American history has been looked at through less sentimental and more retrospective eyes, it has become clear that someone “discovered” America long before Christopher Columbus. Columbus himself, in his logs, reported about the indigenous people he found here. The holiday was created through the eyes of a white government, white society and from a white/European perspective. October 12 has been shelved for many years in the back of an old and musty national storage closet.
This week, in Minneapolis, anyway, Columbus Day was official discharged from any more duties or responsibilities and the city proclaimed the day henceforth shall be known as Indigenous People’s Day
The vote [I’m going to call it “the historic vote”] took place yesterday (Friday, 26 April 2014) at Minneapolis City Hall. . A large number of indigenous people celebrated rather joyously and the sounds of drums rang out in the corridors of the big, cavernous building.
There is sentiment for such municipal action in other parts of the state as well. Such a vote will be taken in Red Wing next week, where the city will attempt to declare the day First Peoples Day. And there is talk about such action being taken at the state level as well. And, the native people of Minnesota keep hoping that federal recognition will follow.
Columbus Day is officially a federal holiday and has been since 1934.
Some feathers will be ruffled over this. Extreme conservatives can be heard howling already. Yet, it is difficult to look at history and not have great sympathy and supportive feelings for the Native Americans who wanted this holiday recognized for what it is – a sham. The actual story of the arrival of Columbus in the Americas is nothing like the story that I learned in grade school. The history books of the time were written by people of white, European backgrounds who saw themselves as part of the dominant race around which all the wheels of the national experience turned.
The real history of America does not begin with the arrival of Christopher Columbus; nor does it begin with the religious pilgrims at Plymouth. Indeed, it is older and ever so much more glorious than that.
It is difficult for those of us who trace our ancestries back to those European lands, to understand the impact that Columbus Day has on the real natives of America. In 1992 Vernon Bellecourt visited the Science Museum of America. He was secretly carrying a pint of his own blood. He found a replica of the ship, the Niña, on which Columbus sailed to the Americas. The Native American threw his blood on to and against the ship. Yesterday, his brother, Clyde Bellecourt explained the action: “He did that for all the blood that was drained from our community and our nation across the western hemisphere.”
On Thursday of this week (the day before the City Council action), the freshman mayor of Minneapolis, Ms. Betsy Hodges, delivered her first “state of the city” address at the Minneapolis American Indian Center. When the City Council voted yesterday they were unanimous in their decision.
Minneapolis is not the first unit of government to take such action. Several states do not recognize Columbus Day and the city of Berkeley (CA) began recognizing the day as Indigenous People’s Day in 1992.
Several years ago I turned my gaze, for information about American history, to the extraordinary book by Howard Zinn (A People’s History of the United States*). We didn’t have history books like this when I went to school; that is, history books that told the truth and drew history for us as it was and not as we wanted it to me. Zinn opens his book with an account of the landing of Columbus in the new world. It makes for some of the most interesting, tantalizing and provocative reading one could ever encounter…
“Arawak men and women, naked, tawny, and full of wonder, emerged from their villages onto the island’s beaches and swam out to get a closer look at the strange big boat. When Columbus and his sailors came ashore, carrying swords, speaking oddly, the Arawaks ran to greet them, brought them food, water, gifts. He later wrote of this in his log:
‘They… brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things, which they exchanged for 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 Arawak lived in village communes. They had agriculture talents and grew yams, cassava and corn. They spun and they weaved. They did not know of iron and they had no work animals.
There in the Bahamas and again on the mainland, Columbus found hospitable welcomes. The natives were generous and sharing. Columbus had come looking for gold and he was disappointed when they found virtually none. He took a few of the Arawak men and sailed on, hoping to find the mainland. He arrived instead in Cuba and then sailed on to what is known today as Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
Finding no significant gold, Columbus needed to return to Spain with something, so he took slaves back to Europe. He would return to America on a second expedition of 17 ships and twelve hundred men. His mission was to gather slaves and gold. On one island after another in the Caribbean, Columbus took slaves but found no gold. Word magically began to spread ahead of Columbus, to the other islands of the Caribbean, and Columbus began finding no welcoming natives and, therefore, no slaves. He found out that his men, the ones he had left behind after his first arrival, had all been slaughtered. Word of his deeds had gone before him.
Other explorers would follow. Zinn writes of them….
“What Columbus did to the Arawaks of the Bahamas, Cortés did to to the Aztecs of Mexico, Pizarro to the Incas of Peru, and the English settlers of Virginia and Massachusetts to the Powhatans and the Pequots.”
The historical sources used by Zinn are Columbus’ own log books and the early history of a Catholic missionary priest named Las Casas. The priest left behind gruesome accounts of the Spaniards’ treatment of the native Indians.
And this behavior by the explorers was not the exception, but it was definitely the rule. It did not take long before the natives of the Americas began understanding the cruel ways of the invaders who came out of the waters to the east.
*Zinn, Howard: A People’s History of the United States [Harper Perennial, 1979]


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  1. This is better reading now, than it would be in means more now. It's all true, and i hope my own town, Denver, follows the example of Minneapolis.

  2. Poor Columbus, he just gets no respect! By the way, the next time the Indians are at Target Field will Minnesota please make them remove the ridiculous Chief Wahoo patch on their jerseys.