Land Back protest. Photo by Blaire Russell
In this key moment of America's tentative reckoning with race, a gobsmackingly oblivious White House nonetheless continues to celebrate "Christopher Columbus’s (sic) intrepid (ditto) voyage to the New World" that "ushered in a new era of exploration and discovery," perhaps because, having spent the last few decades playing golf and ripping off the poors, they evidently remain unaware that said "great Italian" was a genocidal conquistador who mercilessly killed, raped, exploited and stole land from the native people he claimed to "discover." In a singularly Trumpian spin on history then and now, the White House issued a statement castigating "radical activists" who seek to undermine Columbus’ "legacy" with talk of "failings" and "atrocities," threatening those who vandalize monuments "to our intrepid heroes," and vowing to "promote patriotic education...teach our children about the miracle of American history" and "stop this new wave of iconoclasm by standing against those who spread hate and division," which we admit he knows something about. As usual, though, he's more than a few loathsome steps and years behind a country that is increasingly, gratefully marking Indigenous People's Day. Thus do we choose to honor not genocide but the history, culture, resilience and survival of tribal peoples, here and around the world, who've similarly suffered. Confronting "the curse of Columbus" the late, great Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano once bitterly noted that before there was an Indigenous People's Day there was a "Race Day," not much of an improvement: "What is race but a useful lie to exploit and exterminate one's neighbor?"
Globally, the first Indigenous People's Day was on October 12, 1992. In this country, it is now celebrated in 14 states, the District of Columbia and over 130 cities; it's newly marked in Arizona and Texas' El Paso County, with America's growing racial justice movement also targeting statues of Columbus and other Trumpian "intrepid heroes" whose racist crimes - invading, decimating, exploiting - should be part of our collective memory. For many native people, their task is not, as claimed, rewriting history, but reclaiming it. "Our People are still here," they declare, "and we weren't 'discovered.'" Native activist efforts, like Dennis Banks' famed "We AIM Not To Please," often focus on one basic fact: Our white supremacist systems and institutions are built on stolen land. Thus, a South Dakota collective has just launched the LANDBACK Campaign, a multi-pronged effort to give justice to Indigenous people by returning Indigenous lands to them. In Maine, home to the Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, Maliseet and Mi'kmaq who similarly lost access to vast lands and resources, tribal leaders are fighting to gain full sovereign recognition and rights. As of 2019, Maine marks Indigenous People's Day;that is as it should be, writes Penobscot Tribal Ambassador Maulian Dana. "Celebrating Columbus sends a message to modern-day descendants of those Indigenous ancestors that their demise is worth having a holiday for," she says. "That their killers are heroes. That the country was better off for their unimaginable suffering." She is grateful for the change; she must also navigate the complex mix of feelings - sadness and anger for what's been lost, gratitude for the beauty that remains, "motivation to keep going, because so many of us couldn’t" - that is her and many others' heritage.
"They tried to exterminate us. We still rise. They tried to silence us. We still sing. They tried to honor our killers. We took a stand. They tried to erase our ancestral memory. We remember." - Maulian Dana