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Dismantling Columbus and the Power of the Present

Native resistance makes it clear that everyone is implicated in the struggle to protect the planet. No one has the luxury of retreat.

Chad Browneagle, Shoshone/Spokane, joins the struggle against the Dakota Access Pipeline. (Photo: Jaida L Grey Eagle) 

Though Christopher Columbus never set foot in what is now the United States, Columbus Day is hailed as a symbol of the founding of the country. And without question, his arrival unleashed the Christian Doctrine of Discovery — a colonial invention of European international law that legitimated genocide, enslavement and the expropriation of Indigenous homelands. This paved the way for violent settler colonies like the United States to dominate “the Americas.” Rejecting Columbus Day is about dismantling this legacy, as well as challenging historical representations that erase Indigenous peoples’ lived experience and make colonial narratives about the creation of the US seem both natural and inevitable. But it is also about more than that.

Instead of celebrating Columbus’s symbolic role in the founding of the United States, we can reposition him as a founding source of colonial exploitation, which continues to this day. Recasting our view in this way reveals the contemporary forms of settler colonialism threaded through social and political life in the US. The growing movement to critically interrogate Columbus Day is not simply to acknowledge the atrocities committed by Columbus and his contemporaries. It is twofold: to affirm the continual presence of Indigenous peoples, and to advocate in support of present-day efforts to eradicate state violence against Indigenous lands and bodies, including the return of ancestral territories. Such an interrogation challenges an innocuous and expressly historical commemoration of Columbus Day, which relegates both colonial atrocities and Indigenous peoples to things of the past.

Indigenous peoples are challenging a fundamental tenet of settler colonialism: human domination over nature.

Centering Indigenous experience and urgent concerns is not a plea for inclusion in US society. It is about making visible the reality of systemic violence and injustice that is part of everyday life for Indigenous communities. It’s also about exposing the inescapable, ongoing fact of settler complicity in reproducing these dynamics. It is a demonstration of our active presence, as well as a call for people to face the political moment in which we find ourselves. Moreover, it’s a call to meaningfully engage the ways that Indigenous nations are raising fundamental, critical questions about justice, freedom and the future of the planet.

Fossil Fuels and Indigenous Protection of Life

The power and strength of Indigenous presence in the here and now is most evident in critical opposition to the fossil fuel industry. Indigenous peoples are leading the struggle for environmental justice worldwide, even in the face of escalating state repression. The militarization of policing units, armored vehicles, tear gas, K-9s, guns, snipers, media blackouts, felony arrests and a range of intimidation tactics are being deployed in resistance camps, during protests, on active construction sites and in ancestral territories that happen to be of economic interest.

Taking a bold stand against the expansion of capitalist “development” projects that cumulatively threaten the sustainability of life on Earth, Indigenous peoples are challenging a fundamental tenet of settler colonialism: human domination over nature. Resisting an oil pipeline in Standing Rock, a natural gas pipeline in Lelu Island, uranium mining in the Navajo Nation, tar sands mining in Fort Chipewyan andoffshore seismic testing in Clyde River — back and forth across Turtle Island — hundreds of Indigenous nations are actively organizing to undermine the centrality of the fossil fuel industry in capitalist accumulation. In essence, they are hitting settler states where it hurts most. They are unifying in the fight to protect the sacred building blocks of life itself.

Native resistance makes it clear that everyone is implicated in the struggle to protect the planet. No one has the luxury of retreat.

True to their ancestral traditions, Indigenous leaders are asserting a deep relationality to the land, water, air and future generations that is based in a profound respect for all of creation and that also informs very practical measures for the continuance of life. This is a value system that gives equal weight to human and non-human relations, including plants, animals, elemental forces and the cosmos, as constituents of a collective whole. An ethics of living guided by such principles fosters an anti-colonial critique of Western society, revealing how capitalism, rampant individualism and a perception of the land as “natural resources” to be used for the betterment of (white) settlement have produced numerous atrocities, including the current global climate crisis.

Native resistance is leading the fight against the fossil fuel industry. (Photo: Jaida L Grey Eagle)Native resistance is leading the fight against the fossil fuel industry. (Photo: Jaida L Grey Eagle)Indeed, such an anti-colonial indictment of extractivism compels us to pay close attention to the disproportionate impact incurred by communities of color living on the front lines of planetary devastation. Native resistance makes it clear that everyone is implicated in the struggle to protect the planet. No one has the luxury of retreat.

Settler Colonialism in the Present

Indigenous lived experience ruptures the myth of respectful Indigenous-state relations and makes visible the tactics of domination and power imbalances that maintain settler sovereignty. While the US government claims to uphold the rights of Indigenous peoples, signaled by President Obama’s endorsement of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2010, Native communities continue to face grave injustices at the hands of state authorities.

For instance, the US government has continued to breach treaty agreements, encroach upon Indigenous territories, uphold discriminatory laws and policies and condone racist police brutality — often in defense of capitalist expansion. Taken together, these actions have intensified already desperate living conditions reflected in severe rates of poverty, political disempowerment, deficits in education, disproportionate involvement in child welfare, massive incarceration, limited health care and a rise in health disasters resulting from the growing intrusion of toxic waste dumping in their homelands.

With respect to Indigenous women and youth, these injustices are particularly striking. There is an ongoing epidemic of violence against Indigenous women and an overrepresentation of both Native adults and youth in US prisons. A recent report from the Lakota People’s Law Project illustrates that the “unsettling testimonies of unfair treatment towards Native peoples by law enforcement are not isolated incidents but endemic of a deeply discriminatory justice system.” Native youth, who become trapped in racist carceral institutions suffer two of the most severe outcomes of the juvenile justice system — out of home placement and transfer to the adult penal system. Native Americans, according to the report, are the racial group most likely to be killed by law enforcement.

#NODAPL Oceti Sakowin Resistance Camp, Standing Rock, ND. (Photo: Jaida L Grey Eagle) #NODAPL Oceti Sakowin Resistance Camp, Standing Rock, ND. (Photo: Jaida L Grey Eagle) These injustices are the real-life manifestations of settler colonialism, and they link directly to the material benefits accrued by settlers, which are only possible through Indigenous dispossession on multiple fronts. If, as a society, we are genuinely interested in righting historical injustices against Indigenous peoples, it is simply not sufficient to stop at a refusal to celebrate Columbus Day. We must be willing to identify the very tangible ways that private property, legal jurisdiction and precedents, economic wealth — the very existence of the US — actively work, every single day, to perpetuate harm in Indigenous communities while offering concrete benefits to the descendants of settler colonizers. And then we must engage in politicized allyship to advance a movement for decolonization that brings this system to its knees.

The Power of Intergenerational Leadership

Indigenous peoples have a relationship with history that is not a linear, compartmentalized timeline, but rather an embodied, holistic understanding that simultaneously references past and future to inform actions in the contemporary moment. This is why reflecting on historical traditions and political resistance is necessary in present-day organizing efforts — to learn from previous experiences and ensure wise, constructive decisions that chart a clear path forward.

Essential to Indigenous governance and political resistance both past and present is intergenerational leadership. Enabling Indigenous nations to draw on the knowledge and wisdom of different community members has created an opportunity for powerful alliances to emerge. In particular, Indigenous elders, who have a wealth of experience in fighting back against colonial intrusion, are joining forces with Indigenous youth and women to create leadership models that honor inherited legacies of land protection and cultural integrity while being attentive to the social and political issues of our time felt most acutely by women and young people.

Youth, who make up the majority of the Indigenous demographic, and women, who are primarily the givers of life and closest in relationship to the land, are thus rightfully at the forefront of educating and supporting their communities — as well as the public sphere — while transcending key sites of colonial oppression such as environmental degradation, climate change, gender violence and sexuality. By drawing on this diversity of strengths and intergenerational teachings, Indigenous communities cultivate effective strategies for social transformation that restore balance both among humans and with the Earth.

As people grapple with daunting social issues across multiple spheres, we would be wise to take notice of the way Indigenous nations are setting an example around women’s and youth leadership. These are not tokenistic inclusion efforts, but rather new configurations of radical leadership that tangibly acknowledge the enormous responsibility that youth and women are carrying to rectify widespread social injustice (while navigating all that’s stacked against them) — injustice that has occurred as a result of economic and political decisions that were made without their authorization and in spite of the repeated contestations led by their elders. If we think it is going to be possible to achieve the forms of social change that are desperately needed without the ingenuity, courage, passion and strength of the rising generation, we are greatly mistaken.

Finally, it’s important to remember that Indigenous peoples are not alone in carrying a living history. Interrogating Columbus Day is a key opportunity to think critically about current injustices that are anchored to the past in direct and substantial ways. It’s an opportunity for all who live on this land to reflect on embodied histories, including settler histories, and the repercussions of our actions — the legacy we are leaving for future generations. And perhaps most crucially, problematizing Columbus foregrounds how Indigenous peoples must not be relegated to the sidelines when devising decolonial strategies for social change in the US, but rather placed at the center. A collective struggle for liberation and freedom is inextricably bound to them. There will be no justice on Indigenous lands until this is the place from where we begin.

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