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.

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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.