When it comes to native peoples, the President has become the Ignoramus-in-Chief, a bigot who issues statement after statement intended to rub salt in the wounds left by a long and traumatic history. First, there was his reversal of the Obama Administration’s tepid opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline. Then there is his continuous and mocking derision of Elizabeth Warren, one of his likely opponents in 2020, who he insists on calling “Pocahontas.” And now, his proclamation honoring Columbus Day, without a single reference to the costs paid by the hemisphere’s indigenous peoples in the “Columbian Encounter.”
In 1492, the President claimed, “Columbus and his mighty three-ship fleet…first spotted the Americas. His historic achievement ushered in the age of discovery that expanded our knowledge of the world.” The “daring journey” of Columbus, the President continued,
marked the beginning of centuries of transatlantic exploration that transformed the Western Hemisphere. On Columbus Day, we commemorate the achievements of this skilled Italian explorer and recognize his courage, will power, and ambition — all values we cherish as Americans.
Columbus’s spirit of determination and adventure has provided inspiration to generations of Americans. On Columbus Day, we honor his remarkable accomplishments as a navigator, and celebrate his voyage into the unknown expanse of the Atlantic Ocean. His expedition formed the initial bond between Europe and the Americas, and changed the world forever. Today, in that spirit, we continue to seek new horizons for greater opportunity and further discovery on land, in sea, and in space.
Although Spain sponsored his voyage, Columbus was, in fact, a proud citizen of the Italian City of Genoa. As we celebrate the tremendous strides our Nation has made since his arrival, we acknowledge the important contributions of Italian Americans to our country’s culture, business, and civic life. We are also thankful for our relationship with Italy, a great ally that shares our strong, unwavering commitment to peace and prosperity.
That peace and prosperity, historians might point out, came at the expense of a lot of people who were not from Italy, and not from Europe. Not a single mention of the native peoples, whose loss was the Europeans’ gain. Not a single mention of disease, die-off, depopulation. While Trump avoided the open denigration of native peoples that occurred in the racist Columbus Day celebrations written by Matt Walsh and Rochester radio’s own Bob Lonsberry, his silence is deafening. This is propaganda of a vile sort, and we historians need to call him on it.
Look, I have posted on this blog in the past my feelings about Indigenous Peoples Day, which you can read here and here. And if you have studied Native American history you know that the President’s proclamation is pure and unadulterated bullshit. His intent, I suspect, is to be deliberately provocative, to stir up angry and aggrieved whites by “owning the Libs” and pounding on peoples of color. The forces of Political Correctness, he believes, want to rename the holiday “Indigenous Peoples’ Day They will destroy your heroes, pull down your monuments, make you feel like you are less than a person of color.” But I am on your side, our Bronze Creon says. It is all part of Trump’s playbook, and we have seen it a hundred times before. There is an ugliness here, reflective of the abiding cruelty that stands as the foundation of today’s Republican Party, a foundation built on white victimhood. Trump, a product of these politics rather than their creator, plays this dangerous game well. Trump’s proclamation, an ignorant and unfortunate revision of history that ignores the sufferings the Columbian Encounter initiated, is meant to stir us up and meant to cause pain. Millions of people died. Millions more survived as they confronted what a historian long ago called the “Three Horsemen of the Indians’ Apocalypse”: Disease, violence, and dispossession. Trump understands this very well. He simply does not care.