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A protester holds a sign in front of the White House during a demonstration against the Dakota Access Pipeline on March 10, 2017 in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Every Day Is Columbus Day

What Columbus achieved through bloodshed and savagery is now accomplished with paper weapons wielded in a federal court.

Karen Breslin

As Colorado and other states eliminate Columbus Day as a holiday, it might seem as if our society has begun to repudiate the legacy of a slave trader/explorer who fed Spain's lust for gold by trafficking in, and annihilating, native peoples. In truth, we continue to celebrate it.

We celebrate it every time the desires of the dominant culture override the concerns of native peoples about destruction of their homelands and sacred sites. Despite relentless legal and political resistance from affected tribes, Canadian oil that is produced by converting forests to sand pits recently began flowing through the Enbridge Line 3 pipeline. 

The U.S. Senate should adopt a resolution endorsing the UN Declaration and explicitly repudiate the white supremacy of Johnson v. McIntosh. Only then will Columbus's legacy be in doubt. 

Earlier this year, a federal court ordered the federal government to reassess the environmental impacts of the Dakota Access Pipeline, yet the Biden administration is allowing it to continue to operate. 

In the coming days, it is likely that, over the objections of native people, including the Fort McDermitt Paiute-Shoshone Tribe and Atsa Koodakuh Wyh Nuwu/People of Red Mountain, backhoes will claw into Thacker Pass, Nevada, a relatively pristine desert landscape and site of a U.S. Cavalry massacre of Paiutes. Thacker Pass contains the largest lithium reserves in the United States. The mine will destroy nearly 5,700 acres to fuel the "green energy" revolution touted by advocates of the Green New Deal. 

Affected tribes and native activists asked U.S. District Court Judge Miranda Du to stop the excavation, which she declined to do. The federal-agency defendants "do not dispute that the Tribes consider the entire Thacker Pass area sacred," Judge Du stated. Regardless, she noted that the tribes lack the "right to prevent all digging in the entire Project area" and instead are entitled only to consultation with U.S. officials. 

What Columbus achieved through bloodshed and savagery is now accomplished with paper weapons wielded in a federal court. 

Judge Du's blunt statement about the toothless legal recourse available to tribes also reveals the white supremacy embedded in federal law. In 1823, in Johnson v. McIntosh, Justice John Marshall cited the "superior genius" of Europe as justification for federal dominance over native nations. Marshall acknowledged how "extravagant the pretension of converting the discovery of an inhabited country into conquest may appear." Still, "if the principle has been asserted in the first instance, and afterwards sustained; if a country has been acquired and held under it; if the property of the great mass of the community originates in it, it becomes the law of the land and cannot be questioned."

Nearly 200 years after Marshall invoked the "Doctrine of Discovery," the fundamental relationship between native nations and the U.S. government is unchanged. Despite occasional pledges from presidents to honor native rights, those promises are mostly gimmicks designed to distract from the day in, day out policy choices that undermine native rights through federal approval of projects like the Thacker Pass lithium mine and the Dakota Access and Enbridge pipelines.

The Obama administration endorsed the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which requires states to obtain "free, prior and informed consent" before taking actions that affect native peoples, yet that endorsement has had no effect on approval of massive projects so destructive to native lands. For this reason, the Biden administration should immediately enforce those protections in federal permitting decisions. The U.S. Senate should adopt a resolution endorsing the UN Declaration and explicitly repudiate the white supremacy of Johnson v. McIntosh. Only then will Columbus's legacy be in doubt. 


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

Karen Breslin

Karen Breslin is an attorney and teaches political science at Metropolitan State University of Denver.

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