Why Honoring Indigenous Peoples Day Matters
The message below went out to Standing on the Side of Love supporters on Friday, October 7, 2011. You can sign-up for these emails here.
“I could conquer the whole of them with fifty men and govern them as I pleased.” -The log of Christopher Columbus’ first voyage to America in 1492
“Merely being part of the United States, without regard to our own acts and ideas, does not make us moral or immoral beings. History is more complicated than that.” -James W. Loewen
For many reasons, I love Dane County, Wisconsin, home to my alma mater, the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Some people reduce Dane County to just a bastion of liberals. Well, those liberals in Dane County replaced Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day a while back. But so has South Dakota, which honors “Native American Day.” Several California cities, and my employer, the Unitarian Universalist Association, honor Indigenous Peoples Day as well.
Many people think this is political correctness gone too far, or oversensitivity. I’m not even curious what Fox News might say about it. To all the naysayers, I say, as lovingly as possible: I couldn’t disagree more.
Honoring Christopher Columbus is just another symptom of our country’s fundamental denial. It means lifting up a man who sent the first slaves across the Atlantic. More slaves-about five thousand-than any other individual, according to historian after historian. It means honoring a man who kidnapped indigenous Americans to take back with him to Spain, with several dying along the way. It means holding up as an example a man who demanded food, gold, and spun cotton from indigenous Americans, and used punishments like cutting off their ears and noses and hands to make sure the goods were received. It means celebrating someone who instituted policies of rewarding his lieutenants with indigenous women to rape. As educator and historian James W. Loewen writes in his book “Lies My Teacher Told Me”, “All of these gruesome facts are available in primary source material-letters by Columbus and by other members of his expeditions, and in the work of Las Casas, the first great historian of the Americas, who relied on primary materials and helped preserve them.”
I’m not saying we can’t be glad that we live in the United States of America. I know I often am, especially after some time in a state or national park, or while reading about curbed freedoms of speech or assembly in other countries, or while realizing that I have access to hot, clean water every day. But honoring Christopher Columbus-though he was skilled as an explorer-as some sort of national hero just makes me sad.
Each time we hallow Christopher Columbus over indigenous people, or Rick Santorum over a gay soldier in Afghanistan, or Sherriff Joe Arpaio over a migrant, I believe our moral amnesia is flaring up.
For many of us, commemorating Indigenous Peoples Day over Columbus Day is one way to show that we understand the symptoms of the lies that have been embedded in our country’s collective consciousness. Let’s face it. We live in a country where children grew up playing ‘cowboys and Indians.’ Saying our country is in denial about our own story-our roots, our history-doesn’t make us unpatriotic, ungrateful, or unaware of the staggering beauty of our land, our freedoms, and of so many people in our nation, including people who may not agree with us a lot of the time. But we can’t authentically move forward if we don’t truly know the ground we are on, and where we have been. Honoring Indigenous People’s Day is one important way to do that.
On this Indigenous Peoples Day, people are taking to the streets, hungry for a change that is sweeping the world, chanting for a country where those in power govern with love and justice, and heed the moral imperative to serve the needs of humanity over the needs of consolidating wealth or power.
The United States is full of countless children who go to bed hungry every night, overwhelming environmental degradation costing us our health, and a colossal disparity between the very few uberwealthy and the millions of everyone else. Our deeply ailing nation is full of people who think that constitutional rights should be abrogated in favor of their God-beliefs over others’ God-beliefs, or non-God beliefs. It is full of individuals who have convinced themselves that undocumented people-the poorest, most hard-working people in our country-are somehow taking something away from them, and that if immigrants end up being abused in border detention, it’s their own fault.
I believe those of you who are taking part in Occupy Wall Street protests across the country are trying to deliver these messages through inspired love. And I thank you.
This evening, I begin a 24-hour period of Yom Kippur fasting, contemplation, and prayer. I’m overwhelmed by the need for change-from deep within to that which connects us all to one another, and to all.
Wherever we are this long, Indigenous Peoples Weekend, let us think. Let us pray, however we may choose. Let us speak. Rally. Commit. Act.
And, above all else, let us love.
Standing on the Side of Love
P.S. Here are ten ways to transform Columbus Day into Indigenous Peoples Day.