Columbus Day (October 9), as most of us learned in elementary school, recalls Christopher Columbus’ 1492 landing in America.
It’s a holiday celebrated in the U.S. since the 1700s. Yet, it didn’t receive official federal status until 1937.
Nonetheless, the observance is not without controversy. Curiously, Anglo Saxon-descent citizens began the debate in the 1800s, questioning the holiday for its promotion of non-English traditions and their perception that Columbus Day supported the Catholic faith.
Still, beginning in the mid-20th century, Native Americans took over the lead in opposing the provocative holiday. Why? Understandably, praising America’s “discovery” doesn’t inspire First Americans, who instead see the date as an ominous reminder of the end of their ancestors’ way of life.
Inclusively, though, Columbus Day recalls parallel destinies of three indigenous societies populating what’s now the U.S: (l) Native American, (2) Hawaii’s Kanaka Maoli, and (3) Iñupiaq Alaskan people.
To be sure, the global reach of technically advanced white Europeans is clearly the shot heard ‘round the world. Unmistakably, their overwhelming overthrow of vulnerable societies beginning in the late 15th century is widely recorded in print and film. Albeit, in due time, native people in China, India, Asia, and Africa, whose land was once conquered and dominated by European powers, have regained control of their ancient lands.
In contrast, with few exceptions in South America, indigenous populations continue to be subjugated. Hence, it’s to three excluded societies within the U.S. mainland, Hawaii, and Alaska that the discussion below is dedicated.
As the saying goes, “To the victor belong the spoils (and writing of history)”. Thus, mainstream school curricula is heavily Anglo Saxon-focused, presenting an idealized educational program. The system teaches students to celebrate the 1620 arrival of white European immigrants. For instance, children (inclusive of minority group-descent) are taught to admire white immigrants’ cleverness in “buying” Manhattan Island from allegedly gullible locals for a bag of trinkets.
As a citizen of Indohispanic roots, that particular story has always bothered me. So, let me offer my own explanation: For the record, this legendary land transfer deal was made possible only because the native individual who took part in the transaction had no tribal authority; and being unfamiliar with the concept of private land ownership, he was only too happy to accept the bag of treats from the white settlers.
In due time, indigenous people lost their lands through such coercion and treachery. Clearly, the human toll caused by the large-scale displacement has been great. (Best estimates of pre-1620 Native Americans in what is now the U.S. are between seven to ten million.) However, natives’ viewpoints are generally ignored in U.S. history.
To be sure, Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce was on to the deception scheme. He wisely once said that U.S. government officials mustn’t be trusted because they often represented private land speculation interests. So, he instructed his people to refuse offers to sell their land.
Deceptively, land agents sought out other native elders from nearby clans and coerced them to sign Nez Perce land purchase treaties. With fraudulent deed papers in hand, the U.S. Army then forced villagers out of their homes; paving the way for white settlements. Soon, white intrusion on their lands pushed Native Americans farther west; from sea to shining sea. Incidentally, the East Coast’s horrid 1830 Indian Removal Act set the standard. It looms large in the story of white immigrants’ appetite for land.
Overall, treaties were typically one-sided and the U.S. government knew it. Corruption ruled; with officials playing a dual role as agents for private land acquisition. Like squares on a checkerboard, treaties involving particular territories were only designed to buy time.
In referring to the sly wording in a treaty that US officials used to force him to relinquish his tribe’s land in Illinois, Missouri, and Wisconsin, Sauk tribal leader, Ma-ka-tai-me-she-kia-kiak (Black Hawk) once observed, “How smooth must the language of the whites be, when they can make right look like wrong, and wrong like right”.
Similarly, in the Hawaiian Islands, Euro-American businessmen, with deliberate collusion involving the U.S. military, overthrew Queen Lili’uokalani, because she refused to give up her kingdom to the white invaders. Sadly, the assault on the Kingdom of Hawaii mirrored the loss of Native Americans’ land.
Likewise in Alaska. The takeover of native Alaskan lands by the U.S. followed years of Russian occupation. Officially, the Aleut Inuit people enjoyed hunting rights guaranteed by the Russian government. However, exploitation of the lucrative fur trade quickly brought U.S. white settlements; infringing on ancient Aleut hunting grounds. Soon, tensions and conflicts between white immigrants and local inhabitants only worsened the bigotry toward native Alaskans.
To date, the blatant invasion of America by white Europeans has still to be officially recognized. That is, the U.S. government has not publicly apologized for the role their former colleagues played in dispossessing Native Americans of their land. Although lower-ranking officials have tried to address the natives’ side, the resolutions are rare, inadequate, and condescending.
Worse, disrespectful actions toward Native American people continues in 2017. Typical are (a) U.S. government-mandated oil pipeline aggression, and (b) a proposed border wall on indigenous tribal lands (i.e., the Tohono O’odham homeland straddling contiguous Arizona and Mexico’s Sonora).
As for the Hawaiian people, an official apology was signed in 1993 by President Bill Clinton (U.S. Public Law 103-150). While not perfect, the act has motivated native Hawaiians to seek restoration of Hawaii’s sovereignty.
In Alaska, an attempt in 1971 tried to settle land claims. As a result, the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act established thirteen Alaska Native Regional Corporations. The framework is used to manage land claims by native villages. It’s a temporary fix to a long-standing problem.
Lack of space in this article prevents the equally devastating story of Australian Aboriginals. However, the Australian government has enacted a National Sorry Day (2008) “Apology to the Indigenous Australian Stolen Generation”.
Here in the U.S., Manifest Destiny still rules in mainstream U.S. society. Lamentably, so-called white “nativists” have gained support from some national leaders. It’s in discussing this point that I will close this article.
We happen to be living at a time of all-too-frequent debate over anti-immigration actions that also target descendants of brown skin First Americans. Curiously, besides the antagonistic travel ban aimed at Muslims, all other offensive major measures (DACA Dreamers, NAFTA, sanctuary cities, and border wall) are directly aimed at our largely Native American (Indohispanic) neighbor to the south — Mexico.
Supposedly, supporters of such controversial endeavors fear that the increasing diversity of America will lead to the loss of their white European heritage. (It’s an ironic argument, given that their white immigrant ancestors were the first to diversify America’s brown skin population.)
Equally absurd, anti-diversity politicians insist that new immigrants speak English in order to make it in this country. That condition is hypocritical. Why? Because speaking English hasn’t (l) granted justice to indigenous Americans; (2) Speaking English hasn’t helped Black Americans gain equality; and (3) Speaking English hasn’t helped women receive pay equity with white Anglo Saxon Protestant males in the work place.
In summary, present-day First American leaders recently shared some sage advice to white nationalists: If they want to preserve only their northern European heritage, they should go back to their white ancestors’ country of origin in Europe.
Lastly, Native Americans have suffered much since 1492. Surprisingly, they stay stoic, steadfast, and strong. The bottom line? Everyone should now understand why our indigenous American brethren will never have a “Happy” Columbus Day.
Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above guest column shows Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) and Chief Joseph (1840-1904).