11 October 2011


In most discussions of minorities and oppressed groups in the U.S., there is one which doesn't even occur to most people ~ Native Americans. Indians are the great invisible presence in our collective social conscience. We may pay token attention by naming athletic teams after them, but few non-Indians have any understanding of how wretched life can be on the reservations (a.k.a. ghettos) on which we forced the tribes to live ~ at least, those tribes which surived our attempts at genocide. Typically existence on the rez features the nation's highest rates of unemployment, depression, alcoholism, poor health, and suicide. The neglect and corruption with which the reservation system is administered result in living conditions which are indefensible in an enlightened society.

It is ironic, then, that the very peoples European Americans have subjugated are themselves descendants of cultures which were (and remain) highly enlightened in their understanding of their relationship with the earth and its creatures. While Native Americans are no longer required by law to remain on reservations, that is where most grew up, and that is where their roots lie. A sad thing, when you consider that indigenous peoples once inhabited and called home the entire continent and its adjacent islands.

That is, until the discovery of the New World on October 12, 1492, by Christopher Columbus, an Italian explorer and colonizer in the employ of the Spanish monarchy. Although he had been searching for a western route to Asia, Columbus was quick to understand the opportunites ripe for the picking in the Americas ~ a wealth of natural resources, precious metals, and native peoples who could be forced into slavery, or slaughtered. Columbus siezed the moment, and the rape of North and South America by European powers began.

How odd, then, that in 1937 the U.S. designated October 12 as a national holiday, Columbus Day. Not odd to the Eurocentric portion of our population, but surely odd and offensive to those peoples who lost their lands, their languages, their cultures, and their freedoms to the invasion of white settlers from across the Atlantic. I'm not Native American, but I know that if I were, Columbus Day and Thanksgiving would leave a bitter taste in my mouth.

Apparently, I'm not the only non-Indian who feels that way. An awareness is dawning in the population at large that (as is usually the case ~ and as is documented in an excellent U.S. history book called Lies My Teacher Told Me) Columbus was not the visionary hero we learned about in grade school. He was as prone to avarice as any Wall Street banker today, and as murderously racist as any Ku Klux Klansman. Through Columbus entire families, villages, and tribes were captured and placed into slavery ~ or died resisting.

There is a movement afoot to redress the injustice, however symbolically. California began celebrating American Indian Day in 1998, each September. Tennessee followed suit. South Dakota replaced Columbus Day with Native American Day in 1990. Numerous local observances of Native Americans' Days and Indigenous People's Days have taken place in the years since, mostly in the Dakotas and California. It would please me greatly if Columbus Day were entirely supplanted by Native Americans Day (or First Peoples, as they are known in Canada) as a national holiday.

It is remarkable and inspiring to me that so many Native Americans have not only preserved much of their ancestral cultures, but have also been successful in both the Indian and white worlds. For instance, my list of favorite writers includes Native American voices like Sherman Alexie, Russell Means, Dennis Banks, James Welch, Vine Deloria, Jr., Louise Erdrich, William Least-Heat Moon, N. Scott Momaday, and Woody Kipp. Many more wait to be discovered.

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