Time to Confess Crimes Against Indigenous Peoples

In response to my urging white people to publicly share the slogan, “Black Lives Matter,” my friend Julie challenged me to also focus on the wrongs done to native, or indigenous, people in this country.

Trail of Tears Map

I have some awareness already, but she urged me to learn more about some tribes with whom she is familiar, including her own, the Cherokee Nation and in particular the Cherokee tribe in North Carolina. The Cherokees were the victims of the Trail of Tears initiated by President Andrew Jackson to move the native people out of the way for white settlers and gold seekers in the 1830s (from North Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, and Alabama). This was massive relocation of an entire people. Many, of course, died. Nor was this the first, nor last, campaign to end the existence of people who inhabited what became the United States for generations, and more, long, long before the first Europeans arrived. You can learn much more here (I encourage you to be sure to read the soldier’s account).

Just after my dialogue with Julie on Facebook, I heard from another Facebook friend about a 2014 decision by the City Council of Seattle to change the name of Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day. More recently, the St. Paul, Minnesota Council did the same.

1492, Christopher Columbus (1446 - 1506) lands on Watling Island and meets the natives, while three of his shipmates erect a cross. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
1492, Christopher Columbus (1446 – 1506) lands on Watling Island and meets the natives, while three of his shipmates erect a cross. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

I admit I do not understand Columbus Day. He was not the first to “discover” the New World (those terms of course already get us on the wrong course–the assumption is that something is only valid when people of European descent say it is so) nor did he stick around to help resolve conflicts between the newcomers and the natives. Further, a place already inhabited by human beings does not need to be “discovered–and certainly it is not new!

The main reason this old traditional day seems to have become a federal holiday was to please Italian-Americans. Columbus was Italian, although of course his expedition was paid for by Spain. Many Italian-Americans are upset at the changes in Seattle and elsewhere as an affront to the history and dignity of their people.

Italian-Americans have contributed greatly to our nation–as have Hungarian-Americans, Czech-Americans, French-Americans, Anglo-Americans, Spanish-Americans, German-Americans, Austrian-Americans, Norwegian-Americans, Swedish-Americans, Danish-Americans, among many other European peoples as well. Does each deserve a national day devoted to their most prominent historical figure in the Americas?

And what of African Americans? Perhaps we need a federal holiday commemorating the name of the first slave imported (read dragged against his or her will) here.

But what really is at issue is whether or not we will continue to celebrate a man who not only did no good for the indigenous people he encountered but actually did harm. Many historians say that Columbus engaged in harmful practices, including the use of violence and slavery, the forced conversion of native peoples to Christianity, and the introduction of a host of new diseases that would have dramatic long-term effects on native people in the Americas. Some basic history can be found here.

Seattle just voted for Indigenous Peoples DayIt is clear that in the history of our nation, Native lives, Native bodies, do not matter. I do not wish to dilute the Black Lives Matter campaign given our shameful heritage and continuing harm to African people in our midst, but we can do something to begin to acknowledge other blood on the collective hands of the United States: we can stop celebrating a man who was a key figure in that bloody history by ending a holiday honoring him. And then we can do the next right thing: we can rename that holiday to honor our indigenous ancestors in this land, acknowledging that we stole their land and drove them to reservations (the ones who survived).

When we have got that right, or perhaps even before, we can re-examine our national actions and decide how we want to provide reparations for our actions that led to the annihilation of so many.

To those who say, “I did not steal their land; my family didn’t either,” I say this: if the land where your family settled when they arrived here was anywhere in what is the continental United States then it is likely they, and thus you, benefit from the removal of indigenous people from their tribal lands. I know I do (more about this at a later date).

There is a lot of blood in the ground upon which we stand. It is time to confess the shame of this heritage by ending the celebration of one of its main actors.