Rethinking Columbus Day Event Held at GVSU

columbus wanted posterYesterday, Grand Valley State University’s (GVSU) Native American Student Association held a “Rethinking Columbus” panel discussion. The discussion offered an alternative to the prevailing mythology of Columbus as a great hero in American history and honored the legacy of indigenous people in the Americas.

The panel began with GVSU history professor Brian Collier discussing the origins of the “Columbus Day” national holiday. Collier explained that the Colombian Order first celebrated Columbus’ encounter with the Americas on its 300th anniversary in 1792. By 1892, a movement led by Italian-Americans developed to make the day an official holiday. That effort was largely spear-headed by the Knights of Columbus and it became more successful in the early 1900s as it was able to play off of sympathies directed towards Italians because of a series of natural disasters that struck Italy during that time. Denver became the first city to host a “Columbus Day” event in 1907, followed by New York City in 1909, and becoming a national holiday shortly thereafter. The day, according to Collier, has become a celebration of colonization and the killing of more than 100 million indigenous people–a number that dwarfs the 100,000 people killed in Italy’s natural disasters during that period. As an alternative to “Columbus Day,” Collier urged the audience to honor native peoples by respecting cultural knowledge, promoting sovereignty, supporting native businesses, and teaching others about natives.

Native American artist, actor, and activist Lee Sprague–a current resident of Oakland and Michigan native–spoke next. He addressed the problem of the panel being attended entirely by folks who already understood the devastating legacy of Columbus and expressed the need to both engage a larger audience as well as those with power in society. Sprague encouraged the audience to think about how media images of Native Americans–especially “romantic” images–dehumanize indigenous peoples. He repeatedly stressed the importance of being polite and willing to discuss issues with opponents. As part of that strategy, Sprague told the audience that it was important to do positive and forward-looking organizing–such as the renaming of “Columbus Day” to “Indigenous Peoples Day” in Berkley adopting a native city as a “Sister City”–as well as trying to shift colonial paradigms, an example of which could be changing the language you use to say that you are from Michigan to saying that you are from “the territories currently occupied by Michigan.”

Sprague–who has a degree in international law–told the audience that it is also important to think of the conquest of the Americas in the framework of international law. Sprague explained that Article 2 of the United Nations’ “Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide“–of which the United States is a signatory–describes the actions of both Columbus and the United States. Article 2 describes genocide as “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:”

“(a) Killing members of the group;

(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;

(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;

(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;

(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”

Sprague–who admitted that colonialists founded the United Nations–said that the mass killing of the indigenous peoples of the Americas should be considered genocide based on this Convention. However, it has never been described as such, nor has anyone ever been prosecuted for it, despite the fact that the Convention sets no statue of limitations. Sprague said that no indigenous nations are currently recognized at the United Nations and therefore nobody has standing to bring forth such a prosecution.

The final panelist was Ben Williams who is a local Native American drummer/singer and community activist. Williams–who was recovering from a recent cold–spoke briefly about Columbus and the travesty of “Columbus Day.” He reminded the audience that Columbus did not even land on North America and that from the time when he landed in the Caribbean he abused the native peoples, using them as games for his dogs, for testing their knives, and throwing their babies for “fun.” In reaction to the real legacy of Columbus, the state of Minnesota does not observe the holiday, South Dakota celebrates it as “Native Peoples Day,” and Nevada does not celebrate it as a holiday. He told the audience that “Columbus Day” is one of only two federal holidays named after people, with the other being Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. He said that this is an insult to Martin Luther King, Jr. and his fight for equality. In closing, he shared the following graphic with the audience:

graphic: mlk and columbus: equal?

Author: mediamouse

Grand Rapids independent media //