columbus day: NO CAPITALIZATION NEEDED by: Andy Sarcia-PeltierTweet
To understand the perverse psychological effects attributed to the perpetuation of the federal holiday “Columbus Day” on Seattle’s Native American population as well as the Indigenous people as a whole, we must first understand the historical context of this holiday and how it came to fruition. Once we learn the true history, we will examine the relationship between the federal government and the traditional Native American people of Seattle (Duwamish), as well as investigate the negative psychological impact imposed on all Indigenous people due to historical trauma.
The truth is this: Christopher Columbus did not discover the Americas. He did not set foot on the continent of North America. What he believed to be his successful discovery of India was nowhere close to India. The area Christopher Columbus claimed for himself and the King and Queen of Spain was not undiscovered. Indigenous people already occupied the land that included The Lucayos, Hispaniola, Juana, Santiago, and San Juan Baptista, (or modern day Bahamas), The Dominican Republic, Cuba, Jamaica, and Puerto Rico.
Columbus unified over 500 unique cultures under the label “Indian”. This erroneous terminology derived from Columbus’ navigational failure that placed him 9,000 miles away from his actual destination. He paved the path for future ruthless conquerors including Hernan Cortes and Francisco Pizarro (Christopher). For the record, Christopher Columbus never reached India in his lifetime.
Born 1451 in Genoa Italy, Cristoforo Colombo was an Italian credited as a discoverer and navigator. Cristobal Colon, referred to as Columbus, was given the noble titles of Don and High Admiral as a sign of favor by the King and Queen of Spain, with the agreement that he would lead a fleet of ships in the name of Spain to India. The purpose of his voyage, as Columbus outlines in his journal, was to, “See said princes, people, and territories, and to learn their disposition and the proper method of converting them to our holy faith” (Columbus, de Las Casasc 1). By definition, Columbus’ intent to spread religious ideologies made him a Missionary, not an explorer.
Columbus departed the Seaport of Palo, Spain on his commissioned voyage of Catholic Conversion, en route to India on the 3rd day of August 1492. Referred to by some as an “ambitious voyage across the Atlantic Ocean” (Obama Proclamation 2013), others refer to Columbus’ voyage in 1492 as the commencement of colonization. In Columbus’s personal journal he proclaims an agreement with the King and Queen which states that he would acquire ownership/rule over newly discovered lands, or as he stated, “perpetual Viceroy and Governor in all island and continents which I might discover and acquire” (Columbus, de Las Casasc 1).
On all four of Columbus’s voyages, upon coming ashore on various islands, he encountered Native peoples of the land. This is essential in order to understand the lens in which Columbus viewed Indigenous peoples. Though Columbus refers to the Native inhabitants as “People” throughout his writings (Columbus, de Las Casasc 16), he contradicts himself in terms of the sub-human treatment of indigenous peoples and his proclamation of ‘newly discovered’ land.
On October 12th 1492 upon coming ashore on the island of Lucayos, (now present day Bahamas), it was recorded that Columbus requested of his men to, “…bear faithful testimony that he in presence of all had taken as he now took possession of the said island for the King and Queen his Lords” (Columbus journal page 16). The Native peoples of Lucayos, the Taino tribe, a division of the Arawak, assembled to observe Columbus and his crew. This marked the start of unification due to false identification and dehumanization of millions of indigenous peoples as ‘Indians’.
The same indigenous peoples who watched this process of dehumanization became slaves. In a letter from Columbus to the King and Queen, Columbus writes about the Indigenous people he encounters and states “they should be good servants and intelligent. For I observed that they quickly took in what was said to them. And I believe that they would easily be made Christians, as it appeared to me that they had no religion. I, our lord being pleased, will take hence at the time of my departure, six natives for your highnesses. That they made learn to speak” (Columbus, de Las Casasc 17).
Upon his return to Spain, Columbus fulfilled his promise to the royals and brought back “servants,” as well as news of the new world, which he naively assumed was India. (Deloria 5). He later made three additional trips to Hispaniola, Juana, Santiago, and San Juan Baptista ‘discovering’ additional lands inhabited by indigenous peoples, staking claims to these lands and enslaving more people in the name of the King and Queen of Spain (BIO).
The ideology that Columbus discovered the new world is incorrect. It is a perpetuation of inaccurate history rooted in unification, which fails to view Indigenous peoples as human beings capable of continuing their culture, customs, and practices without “outside assistance” from the dominant culture. It lacks factuality and lends no respect or recognition for diversity in terms of language(s), customs, culture, and the right to self-determination. It permits persistent dehumanization and marginalization of indigenous people, a historically common practice on this continent since “first “contact.
If we seek the truth without bias, we need not look any further than Columbus’s own journal for telling entries such as, “Determined to send me, Christopher Columbus, to the above-mentioned countries of India, to see the said princes, people, and territories, and to learn their disposition and the proper method of converting them to our holy faith; and furthermore directed that I should not proceed by land to the East, as is customary, but by a Westerly route, in which direction we have hitherto no certain evidence that any one has gone (historyguide.org).
Columbus Day has been an unofficial holiday since October 12, 1792 when Italian-Americans in New York City celebrated the 300th anniversary of Columbus’s missionary expedition for Spain (Christopher). This is a large contradiction because Columbus’ birth country of Italy rejected his initial expedition proposal. He was denied first in Genoa, then in Venice, followed by Portugal before finally being commissioned by the King and Queen of Spain to sail to India. These denials were due to a shared skepticism by numerous nautical experts, in regards to Columbus’s navigating abilities (BIO).
Despite these contradictions, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, accompanied with pressure from the predominately-Italian Catholic fraternal order The Knights of Columbus proclaimed October 12, 1937 as a U.S National Holiday (Christopher). These proclamations have since been a yearly repetition of presidents maintaining this myth, spouting half-truths and outright lies. The continuous undermining of Indigenous peoples as second-class citizens, by Columbus’s own admission were occupants of the Americas since time immemorial. These same indigenous people of the Americas have survived years of occupation, colonization, genocide, among many other atrocities and continue to be subjected to a yearly campaign of propaganda led by the United States government.
United States Code 36 Chapter 1 – Patriotic and national Observances, Sec. 107 – Columbus Day states for the president to issue a proclamation each year –
(1) Designating the second Monday in October as Columbus Day;
(2) Calling on United States Government officials to display the flag of the United States on all Government buildings on Columbus Day; and
(3) Inviting the people of the United States to observe Columbus Day, in school Churches, or other suitable places, with appropriate ceremonies that express the public sentiment befitting the anniversary of the discovery of America (36 U.S.).
This in turn results in proclamations such as this one given on October 12 2013 by President Barack Obama proclaiming that:
Late in the summer of 1492, Christopher Columbus, a renowned navigator and fearless adventurer, set out with three ships into uncharted waters. He hoped to discover a new route to the east — opening trade routes for precious spices and paving the way for his patrons, Ferdinand II and Isabella I, to expand their empire. Instead, more than two months later, his crew spotted the Bahamas, and our world was changed forever” (Presidential).
These propaganda statements are re-worded and revisited on an annual basis but the ideology remains the same; that Columbus discovered the Americas. All who have a stake in maintaining the inaccurate and perverse story in which European dominance prevails hold this obvious mistruth. The U.S proclaims to be an active charter member of the UN though the country defies the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. This declaration states that, “Indigenous peoples have the right not to be subjected to forced assimilation or destruction of their culture… (e) Any form of propaganda designed to promote or incite racial or ethnic discrimination directed against them” (Stephens et al. 5), by utilizing an annual tradition of propaganda, the U.S. This perpetuation, in addition to the historical loss in terms of the mass genocide of indigenous peoples, with the population of Native American in North America alone decreasing by 95% from 1492 until the birth of the U.S in 1776, has led to a condition that psychologists refer to as “historical trauma” (Brown-Rice 118).
Historical trauma, caused by historical losses and denial of atrocities such as; separating families, boarding schools, illegal land treaties and death caused by racist policies and practices by the dominant culture, has plagued Native American communities since first contact and it continues to be passed down through generations. The federal law enacted in 1883 that prohibited Native Americans from practicing traditional ceremony until the enactment of the religious freedom act in 1978 (Deloria) magnified dehumanization and denied Native Americans the basic human right to mourn.
It was not until recently that Native Americans were allowed to mourn in a self-determined manner, yet these generations have yet to grieve and are now dealing with feelings of “shame, powerlessness and subordination” (Historical Trauma 18). These are direct results of historical trauma as outlined by Professor Kathleen Brown-Rice and can be found in the current social-environmental, psychological, and physiological distress in Native American communities (Brown-Rice 119).
These feelings of shame, powerlessness, and subordination also cause psychological distress by way of dual identities. Coined by the late W.E.B Du Bois, “Double Consciousness” is caused when a person is forced to look at themselves through the lens of others as well as their own. In the case of Native Americans, through the lens of the European Dominant by means of the perpetuation of Columbus Day, when the Native American sees him/herself as the subordinate, inferior, or the conquered, and in many cases, as sub-human as well as through the lens of truth, which is self-determined. These contradictions lead to what Du Bois refers to as “warring ideals” (Jr.) and these warring ideas revert to trauma and the inability to cope with overwhelming feelings of grief and loss. This healing can only take place once the trauma has subsided and the double self is able to merge into a “better, truer self” (Jr.).
Modern examples of historical trauma can be found right here in Seattle amongst the people of the Duwamish (Dkhw’Duw’Absh) tribe. For reasons unclear, except due to the perpetuation of stories such as the discovery and conquest, the Duwamish have yet to be recognized by the United States government as an indigenous tribe. The continued disregard to grant the Duwamish people a recognized status and subjecting these Indigenous people to government propaganda in the form of Columbus Day, adds to their trauma year after year. Again, here we have a serious contradiction. The Duwamish, lead by their chief and Seattle namesake Chief Sealth, (better known as Chief Seattle), are the First People of the City of Seattle, Mercer Island, Renton, Bellevue, Tukwila and much of King County in the state of Washington.
At the point of first contact in 1851,when the Europeans arrived at “Alki Point, the Dkhw’Duw’Absh occupied seventeen villages and lived in over ninety longhouses along Elliott Bay, the Duwamish River, the Cedar River, the Black River (which no longer exists), Lake Washington, Lake Union, and Lake Sammamish” (Duwamish). Today, thirty years into their fight for recognition, the Duwamish People remain without any of their traditional land. Their mourning process continues, as they wait for a sign of good faith from the United States government in terms of recognition and reprieve from the continued dehumanization that is Columbus Day.
This reprieve is possible and it will happen in many ways throughout the future. A viable and immediate opportunity we as citizens of the United States have available to us now, if we so choose, is to demand government recognition; That the indigenous lands which are currently known as the Americas were not discovered by Christopher Columbus because indigenous people inhabited this land since time immemorial.
Ruth Benedict, a renowned anthropologist, proclaimed in her book Race, Science, and Politics, “Most societies begin with the claim that they are in some way or other chosen people, and that this claim is the starting point for the development of ethnocentrism in the world” (Jaimes 439). I want to reiterate the ‘start’, only to make note that it does not have to be the end. It is now time for the United States Government to honor their commitments to the indigenous peoples of this great country. It is time to uphold the recent promises President Barack Obama recently made to the Native Peoples of Americas. More specifically, “We’re writing a new chapter in our history – one in which agreements are upheld, tribal sovereignty is respected, and every American Indian and Alaskan Native who works hard has the chance to get ahead” (N.P.). It is time to celebrate the truth; for the citizens of the United States of America to recognize and celebrate the heritage of Indigenous Peoples in order to respect and preserve history, provide closure in terms of historical trauma, and unite all peoples together.
Andy Sarcia-Peltier (Turtle Mountain Chippewa) is a community activist and the owner of N8V Couture www.n8vcouture.com
1 Discoverer: The first person to find or explore a place. (Oxford Dictionary Online)
“36 U.S. Code Â§ 107 – Columbus Day.” LII / Legal Information Institute. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 June 2014.
Bio.com. A&E Networks Television, n.d. Web. 20 June 2014.
Brown-Rice, Kathleen. “Examining the Theory of Historical Trauma among Native Americans.” The Professional Counselor 3.3 (n.d.): 117-30. Web.
“Christopher Columbus: 3 Things You Think He Did That He Didn’t.”Washington Post. The Washington Post, n.d. Web. 20 June 2014.
Columbus, Christopher, and Bartolome De Las Casasc. “Christopher Columbus 1451-1506.” Early American Digital Archive (1503): n. page. Web.
Deloria, Vine. Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto. New York, NY: Macmillan, 1969. Print.
“Duwamish Tribe.” Duwamish Tribe. Duwamish Longhouse, n.d. Web. 20 June 2014.
Jaimes, M. Annette. The State of Native America: Genocide, Colonization, and Resistance. Boston: South End, 1992. Print.
Jr., Dickson D. Bruce. JSTOR. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 June 2014.
N.p., n.d. Web
“Presidential Proclamation — Columbus Day, 2013.” The White House. The White House, n.d. Web. 20 June 2014.
Stephens, Carolyn, John Porter, Clive Nettleton, and Ruth Willis. “UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.” The Lancet 370.9601 (2007): 1756. Web.