Why I Will Celebrate Indigenous People’s Day

At the center of a traffic circle in downtown Syracuse, New York, adjacent to the cathedral of the city’s diocese, there is a statue of Christopher Columbus atop a stone pillar. While not as grand as his doppelganger by our much bigger sister’s Broadway and 8th avenue, this Columbus stands tall and proud nonetheless, his left hand cradling a scroll and his right slightly extorted in a proud, almost aloof, gesture. Columbus Circle is a favorite spot in the city for summertime walks and festivals. With the monument encircled by a pool that reflects the spectacular Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception and the romantic figure after which the area is named, it is an attractive and rather refined spot in this otherwise gritty rustbelt hub. Every July, the Arts & Crafts festival is held at Columbus Circle. Proposals are not uncommon, and the nearby performance theater brings in many musical or concert goers. A nice night of Beethoven followed by a stroll around Columbus Circle. What a fine evening going about town.

Columbus_Circle_Syracuse

Less than ten miles away is the nearest Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) reservation, the Onondaga Nation. It’s most famous among Syracusans of European descent for its domestically produced cigarettes. It’s also known for its dilapidated houses, rotting barns, bitter Natives, and its…colorful greeting sign.

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(at least Spitzer isn’t governor anymore…)

It took me more than ten years living in this historic land to realize, let alone learn, the darkness behind this pairing. Below the Columbus statue’s feet, on each of the four corners of the pillar, there is a face of the typical representation of a Native American chief. Whether this is a political statement regarding Columbus’ conquering of the Indians or a well-meaning (but clumsy) gesture from the statue’s Italian-American constructers to their Haudenosaunee neighbors, I cannot say. But to me, it’s more than just a pretty statue.

Last time I was in the Circle was for the Arts & Crafts Festival in mid-July. Not far down the road in a triangular urban park called Hanover Square, the Onondaga were celebrating their annual festival, the Stage of Nations ECOfest, dedicated to the Haudenosaunee’s love for community and the environment. As we drove by this scene of dancing and neighborly festivity, my dad (who knows my feelings about the Indigenous struggle) pointed it out to me. The irony of the festival’s proximity to the Columbus statue was also mentioned.
“It doesn’t bother me that Columbus gets a statue,” I say smugly.
“Oh no?” Dad inquires. “Aren’t you passionate about Native rights?”
“Yes,” I say, “But at least there are pigeons to [excrete] on his head.”

Yes, a candid statement, but I will say that it’s a sentiment I do not hold with any hesitance. It is hard to feel a lot of pity for a man who has been sanctified for centuries by our textbooks, public schools and nationalist historians. I have to mention that it is my (at times very, very difficult) duty to never say I hate any man. But I do resent the praise thrust upon many, and Columbus tops that list. Yes, he was one amongst the many greed-driven explorers of his time. Certainly. But this still means we are celebrating a man who articulated such astute theological musings as “Gold is the most excellent; gold constitutes treasure; and he who has it does all he wants in the world, and can even lift souls up to Paradise.” Yes, Columbus loved gold. His gospel also made it necessary to read aloud a decree called “the Requirement” to the Native Americans his crew had “discovered” before coercing them into conversion. If they ignored them, Columbus and his crew could do whatever they wanted with them.

We all know that Columbus wasn’t even the first guy to discover America (at least, I hope your elementary school teachers taught you about Leif Erikson…and the Native Americans…it’s not like they sprout from American soil right after ol’ Chris’ arrival). But he was a man of science, right? Actually, the flat-earth myth, another tried-and-true argument still employed by atheists and free-thinkers to belittle the historical church in the ongoing effort to make religious people look dumb, was never part of any zeitgeist pertaining to the 15th century Church (or any thinking person, for that matter) in the first place. And in the case of Columbus, the fable that he, with strong, science-driven conviction, proved that the earth was indeed round despite the mutinous rambles of his superstitious sailors was actually contrived by Washington Irving, the guy who wrote “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle”.

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Look at that smug grin. The guy was from Westchester. Doesn’t surprise me. Downstate prick.

And the troll even knew it was a falsehood.

Not one man that walked the earth other than Christ was perfect. It seems somewhat wrong to dedicate a holiday to one man who we barely know anything about. Martin Luther King, Jr. received his holiday less than twenty years after his death. People knew his merit and had even witnessed his legacy and contribution to history as it was unfolding in the 1960s. Columbus Day was never declared a federal holiday until 1937…445 years after his initial voyage. I would think that a few details of Columbus’ tale had been lost in translation after that amount of time. So if it is faulty to dedicate a holiday to one man who lived too long ago and has little historical evidence supporting his legend, why not dedicate a holiday to an entire people group that does? A group that has fought bravely for centuries for their land, endured years of bloodshed and exploitation, broken land-treaties by the newly established government, and threatened traditions? Hey, why not?

When I heard the news in April that Minneapolis had changed Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day, I felt a sense of justice. This past week, when Seattle followed the larger Twin City’s initiative, I felt even more justified. As one might infer from the intro paragraphs of this perpetually growing essay, this issue in history is a personal one for me. It’s one of the personal reasons I have decided to study history because I have spent my teen years treading the soil on which much of the tension took place. I see this as a true reason to celebrate. But, as it goes, not everybody’s happy. Some of the media-based reactions slightly disconcerted me. No wonder.

The changing of this holiday’s name is, according to one writer on the Tea Party News Network, “a move that will have the political correctness police cheering”. Okay. I might say that this goes beyond political correctness. But I can’t say that without repeating myself. So I will.
It. Is not. About. Political. Correctness. Visit a reservation (or take a trip to the library, look under “American history”).

The writer goes on, saying “modern day liberalism is an ideology dedicated to eradicating and replacing traditional values of American identity and pride.” Okay, so this is all just another partisan issue as always. That’s what it is reduced to again. If you ask me, there’s hardly anything more conservative (even libertarian) than the specific causes of Indigenous rights. Their struggle has been overwhelmingly faced against the American government…from the very first democrat, King Andrew and his Indian Removal Act to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, which overturned their traditional form of self-government. Supposedly, conservatism has a monopoly on responsibility and self-reliance, which is a value shared by the Native Americans. Like the small-business owner, nobody is more opposed to governmental interference than the Native American chief. But I guess the deal is that liberalism has a monopoly on human sympathy and feeling. So be it.

I will have to add in my dissertation that history is not only about pride. In fact, national pride as the exclusive paradigm by which to see history harms it. To study history is to look at everything, especially the ugliness of it all, and say “it does not have to be this way anymore”. It does not have to be another century of tension and aggression. It does not have to be another day of cold stares from the Mohawk kids to the Italian kids whenever the latter commutes from the Northside of Syracuse to get a “pack-a-cigs.” It does not have to be the America that Columbus left behind.

That is why I will always celebrate Indigenous People’s day.

Short story: Inhale

A short story I read for a Humanities class at my college. It’s based on a story I wrote in 11th grade and decided to revisit and tweak up a bit. I hope you enjoy

Inhale

Buffalo, NY. 2045.
He believed in the Mask.
He had believed in it and yet he had perished from it. The Mask just fit a little too tightly. It’d been pressing up against his Adam’s apple all those hours in the office…I can’t say why it finally killed him at that moment, but he was hunched over his desk, as always, and I heard it…he was being throttled. I had forgotten the sound, like slow crushing of walnuts, because, well, we all believed in the Mask, and the Mask had never let us down. Our delicate eyes were blocked from the Sun by the Mask, our fragile ears were protected from noise pollution by the Mask, our noses guarded from every heinous odor of the outside world by the Mask…and yet, the Mask decided that this kid couldn’t stay.
It was the first workplace accident in ten years.
And yet, every day remained the same after that. A mere freak accident that involved a little wrinkle that the government would iron out in due time. We couldn’t mourn because we knew that would just be a distraction. The only difference I noticed after his passing was that every day for every person carried a faster pace. I wake up just a minute earlier now. It used to be 7:00. It is now 6:59.
There goes my alarm now. My pod opens. We’ve been using oxygenated pods that stimulate sleep since Operation Quarantine was issued by the government ten years ago. As the iron door slides open, so do my eyelids. I see nothing but whiteness. These kinds of rooms were called Emergency Rooms when my parents were children, but now they serve as your everyday bedroom. I lift myself out of the pod. The floor is frigid to the soles of my feet. I shuffle across it to the table at the end of my room. A screen spread against the wall by the table is on the WNY Medical News Channel, as it always is. “Third pandemic this year in China,” the headline below the talking head reads, as if reporting the daily market watch. After the Virus report, a man in the Mask appears and I know right away that it is Governor Rustonvelt. He gives the same message every day. “As long as we are clean, progressive, and in control every hour of every day, we will live to see a stronger New York.”
Every day I watch the WNY Medical News Channel on channel 39. I also eat the same cereal with the same spoon and the same bowl. Naturally I put this back into my dish washer for the next day. By instinct I also wipe down the top of my table until it regains its reflective shine. Three-hundred-and-twenty-five circles with the rag or it isn’t clean. I wipe down my television set after I am finished watching the news. Then I go to my closet and put on my jumpsuit, which shines like onyx in the blinding white room. Everything is clean and nothing does not shine.
Time for work. My shoes lie against the wall of my closet, polished, and perfectly in line. I slip them on and leave my closet. A kiosk on the wall next to my closet is waiting to be opened, and I must open it, lest I choke on the air outside and die. I punch in the code on the number pad next to it. The door opens. I pull it out. I pull it over my head and suddenly the eyes given to me by that which-was-once-called-God are replaced by large protruding orbs. My mouth is now a tube, sealed by a ventilating cap. It is my Gas Mask. I believe in it. By it I shall live. Without it, I shall die.
I walk to the Station. Each apartment is situated so that it takes no more than 200 steps to get to the Station. Today it takes 199. The line is not too long. I walk inside. I find a seat. I sit. We must sit ten feet apart. No more, no less. The closer we sit, the more likely we are to touch. Touching is absolutely unacceptable in a public setting. There is this one girl who usually sits across from me on the bus. I can tell her out from the rest of the crowd because of the wave of gold that spills out from the sides of her mask. Some days when I feel like it I wonder just a little bit what every face looks like other than my own.
Masks. Nothing but Masks. Masks everywhere. Did we always have all these Masks? To my right is a fat Mask who has his head crooked back and fumes seem to be leaving his respirator. Must be snoring. This is what it is like to live, how glorious!
The city we are rushing through has come a long way from its days as a jungle of scaffolding and graffiti covered brick. Buffalo is the #1 manufacturer of the Mask. In fact, my job is to make the Mask so that everybody might be saved by its great power. I work with the greatest of fellow worker bees. We sit down at computers and conceive designs of the Mask and sometimes commission sales to other countries. It is a lovely job and I am glad to do my part. I will never, ever, ever, ever, ever tire of seeing the Mask.
We have arrived at the bay where I get off. A towering building that evokes ivory casts a black veil of a shadow over Buffalo. A revolving door brings me to a wide open atrium of white speckled in with black. I look down at my timepiece. It is 9:04. I used to get here at 9:05. I walk past the same receptionist, down the same hall, towards the same cafeteria, past the same men sitting and discussing the same kind of logistics. Nobody greets me, but this comes as no surprise. The Mask isn’t very friendly. You can’t really see what people are thinking because of it, so you don’t know if they’re being sarcastic or serious or warm or cold. In fact, we actually avoid showing any emotion at all. Idle chatter is still commonplace, tedious and banal.
“Did you hear about that intern?” a low, dispassionate voice belonging to a muscular Mask ahead of me mutters. “He choked on his own Mask…”
“He wasn’t used to the kind of Masks we use in the state of New York,” a short, chubby female Mask says ten feet ahead of him, not even turning around. “We’re working on a new design to avoid reoccurrence.”
“I hear there’s a new pathogen circulating across Upstate. It came from Binghamton,” the muscle says as if this had anything to do with previous conversation.
“WNYHealth has over 300 dedicated physicians who will be able to keep this city safe and eventually contain this pathogen,” Chubby pitches. “New York will be safe once again.”
It’s time I get some lunch. The line is very expansive because we have to be separated by ten feet. There are only seven of us at the moment, so the wait isn’t too long. When I arrive at a window, a very tall and skinny Mask is serving me.
“Order, ” she says.
“Coffee,” I say. First word of the day. “Black.”
She hands me a black thermos and a lid-shaped device with a tube protruding from it. I screw this onto the end of my mask’s nozzle. This is how I am able to drink. Pretty neat, eh? I was on the committee that came up with this design. I sit down at the nearest table. I should be thinking about the latest design proposal to avoid future accidents, but I am thinking about sea cucumbers, and what it must be like to live and breathe underwater. To not have the need to simply feel.
God, or whoever you are, or whatever you are, if you really are there, please make me a sea cucumber.
I stop thinking about sea cucumbers. Something is wrong. Horribly wrong. A crowd gathers. They are a lot closer together than they should be…they seem to be circling around somebody.
“WHAT THE HELL DO YOU THINK YOU’RE DOING?” It is the first time I have heard somebody yell and curse in a long time. And it is absolutely beautiful. I walk toward the mob.
In the eye of the crowd encircling him is a man. A man in a jumpsuit like me, and all around kosher, except for one little detail.
He has abandoned the Mask.
He is looking at me. His eyes are wide open, jubilant turquoise. He is smiling, indulging in his moment of infamy.
“Breathe, my friend,” he says. “Just breathe.”
I don’t know what to say. I don’t know how to act. “What are you doing?” I say, still muffled behind this Thing.
“Breathe, my friend,” he iterates. “Let it go.”
He raises himself and butts his way through the crowd. The people spread out to let him through without touching them. He walks up to me. He puts a bare hand on my shoulder. Bedlam, madness, entropy take over as the crowd disperses across the shining floor.
“He has touched him!” a high ranking Mask yells.
“Somebody do s-something!” A Mask with a stutter yells. I notice these Masks trip, stammer, cough, stub their toes and curse, sob, and hit inanimate objects in fury. And one by one, they all become human.
The man’s hand is still on my shoulder. “Hello, mister” he says. “I just wanted to say to you that it is alright. It will be OK. Just breathe.” He is telling me something with his stares. My hesitation has been worn down thin. I take off the mask. I rip off the mask. I see this room through eyes that I have not used outside of my home in ten years. He leans in, his breath like the smell of earth, and he whispers something in my ear and I feel elated. Two brief, simple words. I long to go outside and say them to the first Mask, the first human, I see.
“Go,” he commands.
I run down the white halls, stained in red at one area because somebody has succumbed to a bloody nose. I run past the receptionist, who is staring at the empty ceiling because she is not empty inside, but has been a jilted lover all her life. And I run past the revolving door, covered in finger prints because sometimes the fabric in our jumpsuits rips and the skin underneath is exposed.
I am outside now. Each breath is a song and the sky is now the shade of blue that it should be. The sun kisses my face. I look ahead and see that girl, still confined by her mask, but still letting the waves of gold dance in the wind. I run up to her and embrace her. She pulls her mask off and asks me if it is safe to breathe.
“Yes,” I say, and stare. I shed a tear. I am looking into the face of innocence. But I must share the words with her.
“Are you alright, sir?” She says, her jade green irises peering at my naked soul.
“I am.”