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Opinion

Indigenous People’s Day a more worthy day of celebration than Columbus Day

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October 15, 2015

Since the founding of Columbus day in 1937, Americans have been celebrating the second Monday of October honoring the man who, as taught to us in elementary school, supposedly discovered America. Within the past few years though, many progressive cities have blown off Columbus day in favor of a more honorable celebration: Indigenous People’s Day.

As early as Kindergarten, Americans are taught the little ditty “in fourteen hundred-ninety two/Columbus sailed the ocean blue,” to remember the guy funded by Queen Isabella of Spain to travel to the east Indies in search of rare food spices like black pepper. It’s understandable that he and his crew became disoriented on their way across the ocean, since they had little more than some compasses, maps of a flat earth, and the North Star reference to cross the big pond, which was 9,000 miles round trip. He didn’t discover what we now refer to as the United States, but some islands in the Caribbean.

Columbus has historically been revered to as a hero for discovering what would become the New World we now live on, but upon his initial exploration of the land, he did not act in a heroic manner. After Columbus and his crew of 87 men landed their ships, they proceeded to tear the civilizations that had been there for thousands of years apart. They were initially friendly with the Tianos, the first indigenous people they met, but took advantage of this and went on to exploit them and their land in many ways.

They plundered the earth the Tianos used for their traditional way of life in search of finding gold. They enlisted the forced labor of any male over 14 to help search for the element, and often cut off their hands if they came back with nothing (a possible prelude to Columbus as governor here – he would cut off noses and ears of indigenous people as legal punishment.) He managed sex slave rings, where pre-teen girls were the most common victims. The diseases he and his crew brought with them would eventually wipe out 90 percent of the native population. He captured and brought many of the natives and forced them to come back to Spain with him to showcase to them to the King and Queen, essentially starting the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.

He certainly wasn’t the first person to explore North America; in fact the first people to settle North America did so around 2,500 B.C.E., ancestors of the native settlers. He wasn’t even the first white person to discover the continent: Viking Leif Erikson led a band of men to Canada some 500 years before him. The only reason Columbus was so revered was because he was the first to open a new continent up to modern European colonialism.

As horrible a person he actually was, it isn’t surprising that the United States still celebrates this day if you look at our history of colonialism and imposing on the native people. It does seem like our nation, especially the younger generation, is becoming much more progressive in many aspects of social justice- LGBTA rights, gender discrimination, race relations, environmental awareness, among others. Indigenous rights is not something considered often, however, as they now make up such a small percentage of our demographics. As well, the government of the United States still treats Native American communities much the same as it did upon first colonization of indigenous lands.

This seems like a radical claim to make, since we did allow most Native American tribes to have some land reserves for them to use however they like (with some regulation). If you take the time to research independent media and the research of non-governmental organizations, it doesn’t take too long to find a case of American imperialism right in our own country. One I have only recently learned of was the allowed expansion of gold mining companies into Western Shoshone lands.

The Western Shoshone signed a treaty with the U.S. government in 1863 over Ruby Valley in western Nevada. It was a treaty between nations, never to be violated, ratified by the U.S. Congress and signed into law by President Ulysses S. Grant. In the late 1970s however, the United States started issuing fines against two elderly Native American women, whom had lived there since they were children, for grazing their horses and cattle on their land. The government also wanted to allow gold mining companies to pit the land and extract the substance.

The government claimed that the treaties were legitimate no longer and that the women and their stock animals were trespassing on federal land. This of course was not true, and when offered $26 million in settlement money, the tribes and people who had been effected declined, and only further insisted that the government stop encroaching on their way of life they legally had a right to.

They went so far as to have the United Nations declare this was an act of racial discrimination, and urged the United States to stop allowing gold mining in the Shoshone tribal lands. The United States largely ignored the concern, and instead started testing nuclear programs on the site as well.

This is not the only case of racial discrimination against Indigenous communities by the United States. Every year more land is taken away from them, more regulations of their communities are put in place, and environmental disasters are put upon them, all in the name of capitalism. Even so close as northern Minnesota, the White Earth band of Ojibwe is being forced to accept that an oil pipeline will run next to the lands they use to make a living. They and many social justice movements are protesting, but to little avail against corporate interests who so influence lawmakers today.

In a political environment that not only tolerates, but encourages such actions, it’s not surprising that a federal Indigenous People’s Day hasn’t yet been implemented. It’s still more important to consumers (rather than citizens) to buy furniture and cars on sale this day, instead of honoring the people that have been, and still are, so marginalized. My hope is that more cities implement, and more people start advocating, to change Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day, to honor these ancient tribes and their struggles, rather than a man who committed atrocities against them.

Molly Kinney is a journalism student with a political science minor. She enjoys reading, camping, music, art and exploring new cities in her free time. In the future, she would love to travel the world and cover politics for NPR.