Monday, October 8, 2007

Columbus, you jerk.

Today is Columbus Day in the US, and though his actual first landing happened on October 12, our country chooses to celebrate that event a little early. Really, I'm still not sure why we have a national holiday for it in the first place. Aside from the fact that Columbus was an egotistical, mass-murdering fiend, he and his crew weren't even the first people to stumble onto the continent. Heck, they weren't even the first Westerners.

You've got the Vikings, of course, and apparently even some Welshmen by the name of Prince Madog who may have settled in Alabama back in the 12th century. The off-and-on contact between the Old and New Worlds had been going relatively smoothly until Columbus landed on what he thought was the Asian continent (man couldn't even make his geographical calculations half-accurately). Cue smallpox, slaughter and forced Christianization.

Columbus directly brought about the demise of many Taino (Arawak) Indians on the island of Hispaniola, and the arrival of the Europeans indirectly slew many indigenous peoples by bringing diseases previously unknown in the New World. An estimated 85% of the Native American population was wiped out within 150 years of Columbus's arrival in America, due largely to diseases such as smallpox, which were accidentally spread among Native American populations. Additionally, war and the seizing of land and material wealth by European colonists also contributed to the decline of the indigenous populations in American.

Columbus Day is not celebrated in the state of Minnesota. In the state of South Dakota, the day is officially a state holiday known as "Native American Day", not Columbus Day. Columbus Day is not a legal holiday in Nevada, but it is a day of observance.

In the summer of 1990, 350 Native Americans, representatives from all over the hemisphere, met in Quito, Ecuador, at the first intercontinental gathering of indigenous people in the Americas, to mobilize against the quincentennial celebration of Columbus Day. The following summer, in Davis, California, over a hundred Native Americans gathered for a follow-up meeting to the Quito conference. They declared October 12th, 1992, International Day of Solidarity with Indigenous People.

The largest ecumenical body in the United States, the National Council of Churches, called on Christians to refrain from celebrating the Columbus quincentennial, saying, "What represented newness of freedom, hope, and opportunity for some was the occasion for oppression, degradation and genocide for others."

For whatever reason, I hadn't realized that Columbus Day wasn't celebrated in Minnesota, which is odd because I was born in and grew up for some time there. We did learn about Columbus in elementary school, usually around this time of year, so they don't exactly ignore the holiday. But I'm heartened to see that not all 50 states still observe it.

Doing away with the celebration of this man and his ilk would be a nice step, but the more important work lies in education about the real history of our country and its indigenous peoples, and most of all, in working now to make sure native people are not oppressed, ignored or let down. Whether we like to think about it or not, some of the most impoverished and under-privileged populations in this, the wealthiest nation in the world, live in places like the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. The rate of death due to injury and violence amongst young Native Americans is horrifyingly high at 75% and the suicide rate is at least 50% higher than the national average.

There's a lot of work to be done, and we can never make up for the atrocities inflicted on the native populations by our ancestors. That's no longer our job. Our job is to make sure that everyone in this country (and beyond) gets a fair shake at life. By continuing to celebrate a holiday that venerates a man who was part of the problem we're trying to overcome, we set ourselves back and make it nearly impossible for anyone to trust that we're trying to make things better.

I think South Dakota has it right, so today I wish you a happy Native American Day!

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