Oct 13, 2013 - Don’t Honor Columbus or the Colonial Notion of “Discovery” By Sloane Cornelius

When I was about 14 or 15 years old, growing up in a predominantly white town in southeastern Nebraska, it was pretty standard to have cultural presentations once a year at my high school in an attempt to “expand our horizons”; during one such presentation consisting of artists from Wales, a woman proudly declared on stage “Actually, WE were the first to discover America!” At that time, being probably one of two native families in town, I didn’t know what to say to her or to do about the situation. Now that I’m an adult I see this not as an isolated event, but a recurring issue.

As “Columbus Day” comes up, which I refuse to celebrate or acknowledge, I see an assortment of arguments cropping up on social media. Some of these arguments aren’t necessarily talking about the problematic nature of celebrating someone like Columbus in the first place, but rather who exactly gets to claim first dibs on discovering America.

To begin with, people can argue who sailed the ocean first, but the reality is that you can’t discover a place that’s already inhabited. Discovering a new world doesn’t exactly count when you’re sailing in your boats and people are waving at you from the shore. So now, not only do we as indigenous people have to deal with the hurtful and enraging fact that this country celebrates a mass murderer and rape peddler with a federally recognized holiday, we also have deal with people playing grabsies for who found it first.

Frankly, I’m tired of people trying to co-opt the discovery of what we would now call “America.” This is also particularly painful when individuals from other communities of color adopt this colonial mindset. While I understand that there is a historical precedent for exploring community pride, particularly if being proud of yourself has been historically and violently denied to you, this ends up both alienating and erasing the indigenous population here.

I think it’s important to really examine the notions of “discovery” and engage with this desire to co-opt the discovery of the Americas. This attitude bothers me for a couple of reasons, the foremost and most obvious being that it completely ignores the fact that we indigenous people were here with our own histories, ceremonies, and civilizations far before anybody knew that we existed. It doesn’t matter how we got here, no matter what your beliefs are, but the indisputable fact is that we as native people were living here thousands of years before anybody “discovered” America.

Secondly, this co-opt of discovery is truly just coded language for playing the racial superiority game. It is deeply rooted in the idea that whomever discovers first gets to claim, and whoever can claim more is obviously superior. This is a heavily colonized attitude wherein people attempt to elevate themselves and their communities at the cost of our humanity and at the expense of our history, all so that they can gain legitimacy in this white world that we live in. It perpetrates this violent idea that the only way to prove your worth is by proving how much you have and by how much you have dominated.

Finally, no matter who “discovered America” for the “first” time, the end result is always the same: murder, rape, disease, enslavement, genocide. With an end result like that, I’m not so sure it’s something to be proud of. As native people we know that Columbus Day marks not a day of discovery, but the beginning of hundreds of years of horrific genocide, not just for our community but also for other communities of color with whom our history is profoundly entwined.

So, instead of honoring a mass murderer, I am honoring my legacy of resistance. This is me standing up and letting everyone know that colonialism is nothing to be proud of and I will not protect those ideas so that people can mitigate any cognitive dissonance they might have over the way they’d like to see themselves and the reality of the situation. I do not accept your attempts to erase me and my people because you are unable to acknowledge the truth of my history. So in your effort to honor your ancestors, I will also honor mine by telling you simply: No. You cannot erase me. You did not discover me. We have always been here and we will not go away.

Sloane Cornelius is a proud member of the Oglala Lakota Tribe who spends her time pursuing her passion: indigenous rights, social justice, racial theory, and dismantling oppressive systems of power. She works hard every day to honor the memory of her people and her family. Currently she is working towards her degree in Business Administration and has dreams of creating her own non-profit that can provide radical and indigenous-focused education for native youth. 

Last Real Indians