Research & Opinion: Time for Columbus to step aside

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In an otherwise harmonious marriage, one debate soon reached a bright line: I was wrong. We tend to accept the cultural perspectives of youth. I had to step back to see things anew from a viewpoint I’d never been challenged to inhabit (ironic, given a grandfather whose ethnic majority was Cherokee).

The Confederate flag is not — and I say this as a 22-year veteran of the deep South — merely a historical symbol. “It represents independence” or “it’s a Southern thing; you just don’t understand” simply doesn’t fly. When compared with the suffering that thousands endured under its heyday, and today’s enduring prejudices which have adopted its emblem, that argument became moot.

When a symbol becomes synonymous with genocide and massive suffering, wielded in its justification, it can no longer be vindicated.

So it goes with Indigenous Peoples Day — the emerging trend of at least four states and 61 cities reimagining and renaming Columbus Day. In September, Port Angeles, Wash., and Oklahoma City joined the growing list.

Columbus, like that ill-fated flag, is a symbol not of discovery (which he didn’t, landing in the wrong country), but of colonial and racial oppression. Of slaughter and forced mass-migration. Of suffering and discrimination which still linger.

As historical documents now attest, Columbus himself perpetrated genocide and took Native American slaves as young as 9. Today, we’d call him a pedophile.

Does such a man — do such acts — deserve our annual accolade?

The movement to replace Columbus Day with one honoring indigenous people originated at an international conference on discrimination in 1977. Fourteen years later, activists convinced Berkeley City Council to declare Oct. 12 a “Day of Solidarity with Indigenous People.” South Dakota, Hawaii, Vermont, and Alaska have changed the name; California celebrates both. Dozens of cities have done something similar.

Changing the focus of the second Monday in October could do more than clarify history and combat prejudices. It’s an opportunity to broaden perspectives, to learn from ancient philosophies as integral to American history as the land itself.

Are we masters, or stewards, of our homeland? Where should one end, and the other begin?

The September issue of the law journal The Advocate tells the story of Standing Rock, when the Sioux Nation fought against U.S. forces in the Dakotas. At stake was a proposed pipeline on Sioux land. Armored police shot tear gas, rubber bullets, and percussion grenades at Indians. When the temperature dropped into the 20s, the troops added a water cannon.

You can guess who won.

This flew in the face of what the U.S. had promised the Sioux years earlier — “the absolute and undisturbed use and occupation” of reservation land. Yet when precious resources were found, the government dishonored the treaty, allowing the extraction of some $9 trillion in gold.

Here’s where that philosophical difference hit home: Even after the U.S. Supreme Court found in favor of the Sioux and set aside $102 million in trust as compensation, the Sioux Nation, despite its needs, refused to take it. That’s right — they refused the money that is legally theirs — now worth over $1 billion with interest.

Why? The Black Hills, the tribes have made clear, were never for sale.

An excerpt comes to mind from Native American spiritual teachings of the seven fires prophecy, as reproduced in The Advocate (my apologies for any inaccuracies):

“In the time of the Seventh Fire New People will emerge … It is this time that the light-skinned race will be given a choice between two roads.

“If they choose the right road, then the Seventh Fire will light the Eighth and final fire, an eternal fire of peace, love brotherhood and sisterhood.

“If the light-skinned race makes the wrong choice of the roads, then the destruction which they brought with them in coming to this country will come back at them and cause much suffering and death to all the Earth’s people.”

Today, most Americans carry the blood of the First Peoples. Given another choice, brothers and sisters, I hope we choose the one of less suffering.

•••

Sholeh Patrick is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network who will celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day. Contact her at Sholeh@cdapress.com.

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