Margaret Flowers: Reflections on Columbus/Indigenous Peoples’ Day

The celebration of October 12 - nationally as Columbus Day and in some places as Indigenous Peoples' Day - provides an opportunity to reflect on the true history of Columbus' and subsequent colonizer's actions and the lasting impacts they have had for hundreds of years on Native Americans and the 'war culture' in the United States. This 'war culture' is so endemic that many are unaware of it. Personally, I often wonder why it is that we, as a nation, so often celebrate military heroes rather than those who work for peace and those who contribute to our society in more positive ways. There are Italians who made great contributions to the world whom we could celebrate. This raises the question of what we as a society value.

The national Columbus Day holiday dates back to 1937. Prior to that, it was celebrated by several states and there were commemorations on the three and four hundredth anniversaries of Columbus' landing. This national holiday came to be through the lobbying efforts of a prominent Italian-American, Generoso Pope, and the Knights of Columbus. Many Italian-Americans view Columbus Day as a time to mark their cultural heritage.

Alternatively, some jurisdictions have refused to celebrate Columbus Day and each year, new cities are passing legislation to change the focus of the day from Columbus to Indigenous history and culture. This is done in the recognition that Columbus’ behavior - and that of the European colonizers who followed him - was brutal and led to mass deaths, starvation, suffering, theft of land and displacement of communities, violation of treaties and exploitation of resources, much of which continues today.

Recently, Congress passed a clause added to the National Defense Authorization Act by Senator John McCain that gave sacred Apache land in New Mexico called Oak Flat to copper mining companies. Similar events are occurring on sacred Sioux land in the Black Hills that are being taken for uranium mining. Sacred land is essential for Native American culture, medicines and spiritual practice.

When Columbus 'discovered' North America, there were already a hundred million people living here. As settlers moved across the land that now makes up the United States, Native American communities had their crops and homes destroyed by settlers, and women, children and the elderly were targeted in massacres. What is known as the ‘American Genocide' has served as models for others who committed and are committing genocide abroad.

And the colonizer's military practices established the 'American Way of War' which continues today. Modern methods of warfare use the same tactics of destroying a population’s ability to provide for its basic needs whether it is through the spraying of chemicals such as Napalm and Agent Orange used in Vietnam or through economic sanctions. Civilians, including women and children, continue to be targeted in war. High numbers of civilians were killed in US attacks on Libya and Syria. The use of unmanned drones in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, which is supposed to be more selective, does not spare the innocent. Drones have killed upwards of 5,500 people including 1,100 civilians, 250 of which were children.

Rather than celebrating those who are responsible for crimes against humanity, this could be a day to educate ourselves on the hidden history of the founding of the United States through colonization and to consider how that impacts our behavior at home and abroad. This could be a day to celebrate and share the rich and diverse cultural heritage of all who live on this land and to find ways to move towards a humanitarian culture that values all who contribute to a more peaceful and just world. Together, we can move through a process of truth telling and reconciliation that creates a healthier and safer culture for all of us. 

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