The best-selling “People’s History of the United States” by the late people’s historian Howard Zinn begins with a story about the Arawak men and women of the Bahama Islands running to greet Christopher Columbus and his sailors with food, water, and gifts. Columbus later wrote in his log, “They brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things, which they exchanged for the glass beads and hawks’ bells. They willingly traded everything they owned. They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features. They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron. Their spears are made of cane. They would make fine servants. With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.”
This is the man who is still celebrated in the United States. According to most calendars, the second Monday in October marks Columbus Day. Schools are closed, many people have the day off, and shoppers rush to Columbus Day sales.
But thanks to social media, there is a growing campaign to Reconsider Columbus Day. In 2009, Nu Heightz Cinema filmmakers Carlos Germosen and Crystal Whelan teamed up with community activists and indigenous organizations including the United Confederation of Taino People to develop a public service announcement which encourages people to learn the truth about the man who committed heinous crimes against the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean and millions of natives throughout the Americas, and set the stage for the slave trade in the New World.
In the video, a range of mostly people of color say, “It’s not your fault. It happened a long time ago, but remaining neutral and pretending like it didn’t happen or that it doesn’t still impact us today. So please, take the day to learn the whole story. Celebrate the people who were here first. Petition for a nationally recognized indigenous holiday. So please, reconsider the story of Columbus.”
“The issue goes beyond Caribbean Indigenous Peoples however, it is really about society being complacent with symbols of genocide,” said Roberto Borrero, a representative of the Confederation.
In 1990, the state of South Dakota declared the second Monday in October Native Americans Day, and in 1992, the city council of Berkeley, California declared October 12 a “Day of Solidarity with Indigenous People.”
“The fact that we were able to get the state to acknowledge the change was a positive move in the right direction, although it’s not a cure all by any means,” says Charon Asetoyer, the founder and executive director of the Native American Women’s Health Education Resource Center, an organization for and run by indigenous women in Lake Andes, South Dakota. “It does mean that some people are thinking in a more forward direction.”
Even if the campaign catches on and local and state governments begin to reconsider Columbus Day, so much more needs to be done to educate the public about the history of Native Americans.
“It’s pushed under the rug,” says Nikke Alex, director of the Black Mesa Water Coalition in Flagstaff, Arizona’s Navajo Nation. “I remember in grade school, there was a paragraph about Native Americans, but what’s taught in school is about the Founding Fathers of the United States. The genocide is never talked about.”
The current realities facing Native Americans are also pushed under the rug or just plain ignored. Alex’s grandmother didn’t know that the United States is currently facing a recession/depression because poverty and high unemployment is systemic in Indian Country.
Alex says the Navajo Nation is currently dealing with a 66 percent unemployment rate. Thirty percent of Navajos don’t have electricity or running water. “I grew up hauling water not only for our house, but for our livestock and agriculture,” says Alex.
Navajos are also dealing with environmental degradation and a growing public health crisis, largely caused by coal and uranium mining, oil extraction, and water contamination.
The tribes in South Dakota are facing a 60 percent unemployment rate and Charon Asetoyer is seeing a rise in cervical and ovarian cancers. “We live in an area that’s right in the middle of chemical push farming. There’s agriculture all around us. They use herbicides and pesticides and all kinds of chemicals. No matter where you live, you’re exposed to it.” There are also a growing number of confined animal feeding operations in the area.
In 2000, Kandi Mossett, tribal campus climate challenge organizer with the Indigenous Environmental Network, was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer after finding a stage four sarcoma tumor on her stomach. She wasn’t surprised when she found out because so many people on her North Dakota reservation have cancer. She decided to commit her life to working on the issue of global climate change and building a clean energy economy after she realized the connection between fossil fuel use and human health.
North Dakota, the fourth largest oil producer in the country, is home to the nation’s first ever coal gasification plant, seven coal-fired power plants, and a coal strip mining industry.
The Reconsider Columbus campaign is important to Mossett, whose people were displaced three times, because she says native youth need to know where they come from. “People feel lost when they don’t know the history or understand how we got to this point,” she says.
Press play to listen to “Your Call” with Rose Aguilar’s interview with Native American women about their thoughts on Columbus Day, the economic and environmental realities their communities face, reproductive health and grassroots organizing:
Press play to listen to “Your Call” with Rose Aguilar:
Nikke Alex, director of the Black Mesa Water Coalition, an organization founded by native youth to address the water usage of the Peabody Coal Company, the largest coal company in the world
Kandi Musset, tribal campus climate challenge organizer at the Indigenous Environmental Network, an organization formed by grassroots indigenous peoples and individuals to address environmental and economic justice issues
Charon Asetoyer, founder and executive director of the Native American Women’s Health Education Resource Center, a grassroots women’s health institute run for and by indigenous women on the Yankton Nakota Indian Reservation in South Dakota.
Rose Aguilar is the host of “Your Call,” a daily call-in radio show on KALW 91.7 FM in San Francisco and on KUSP 88.9 FM in Santa Cruz. She is author of “Red Highways: A Liberal’s Journey Into the Heartland.”
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