If we replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day, are we guilty of engaging in partisan “revisionist” history? Are we doing something that is unsavory, disrespectful, or mean? American history, of course, is being revised all the time in scholarship, but also in the streets, in public spaces, and at sites of commemoration. A Christopher Columbus statue in Central Park with bloody hands: like a torn-down Confederate monument, or the Oñate monument’s missing foot, these acts of vandalism are, at some level, commentaries and rebuttals to interpretations of the American past that individuals and groups find objectionable.
Several years ago I had an opportunity to speak about Indigenous Peoples’ Day at Lasell College, just outside of Boston. The students had been asked to read the opening sections of Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States and Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen’s Patriot’s History of the United States. As I told the students at Lasell, I am a historian. I teach and write about Native American history and Early American history, so as part of my daily job I try to keep abreast of the scholarship on Columbus, and what historians have been saying about the so-called “Columbian Encounter” or “Columbian Exchange,” or, more generally, “First Contact” between natives and newcomers. I explained that scholars who work in this field do not generally bother with Zinn’s People’s History or Schweikart’s Patriot’s History. Not when we are doing our own research and teaching. There is so much better material written by historians who have actually gone back to the primary sources. Both of the books are highly partisan. Both allowed their politics to shape the answers to the questions they posed, a cardinal sin for historians. Both are simplistic, at times and in places poorly tuned to ambivalence and nuance, unwilling to explore fully the exceptions to their rules. But both of them, as well, have been very widely read.
Zinn’s People’s History is on that short list of deeply flawed books that has been, on the basis of its strengths, highly influential among American historians in teaching them that the history of ordinary working Americans matters. Zinn, of course, wrote with an agenda. That agenda is clear and present in the book’s title. He wanted to tell the story of ordinary Americans in the making of their nation’s history. He wanted to shift the story away from the elites, where it had been focused for so long, towards working people, women, the enslaved, and Native Americans. His goal was to write an inclusive history that challenged those comforting myths that have for so long dominated that narrative: a democratic history that was anything but celebratory. He wanted to show that what America as a nation has accomplished came at the expense of large numbers of people; and because the contributions of those people had traditionally been neglected, that those in power sometimes, indeed quite often, acted in their own interests and used their power to justify occasional acts of extraordinary cruelty, exploitation, and violence. Love of one’s country cannot occur without an honest look at the past. Ordinary people were not merely acted upon. Their resistance and their protests and their movements shaped much of American history. Ordinary, non-elite people were forces in history.
These are laudable goals, and Zinn constructed at times a powerful story that could carry his readers along, despite his occasional tendency to reason beyond what his evidence would bear. Some of his shots misfired, but it is difficult still to overstate how refreshing and liberating this approach to the nation’s past was, certainly to my own generation of historians.
Schweikart and Allen, on the other hand, wrote with chips on their shoulders. They call out Zinn for his “Marxism” in their opening paragraph, even if Zinn said different things about his ideology at different points in his career, and they then proceed to bash one straw man after another in their attempt to protect the nation from “academics” who too often say, according to Schweikert and Allen, “my country, always wrong.”
You hear this a lot in my line of work. I think back to President Trump’s unhinged address at the United Nations General Assembly in 2019. The media and academic institutions, he said, “push flat out assaults on our histories, traditions, and values.” College professors, even though they cannot persuade their students to do the reading, or put away their cell phones, somehow can indoctrinate them with socialist principles. The President here is repeating a bald-faced lie, a willful and complete mischaracterization of the historical profession carried out for partisan purposes that is so irresponsible it is going to get someone hurt. If for Zinn, the purpose of history is to look critically at the American past, to question long-cherished truths, and dispel pernicious myths, for Schweikart and Allen, its purpose is to instill patriotism. Their goal is to protect the stories that have, in their view, been unjustly assailed by Zinn, and by a generation of historians since Zinn first wrote.
This sort of logic can have devastating consequences for public policy. If you saw the Pew Research poll in August of 2019, the results are troubling. According to the data, the percentage of Republicans who see value in a college education fell from 53% in 2012 to just 23% in the most recent survey. Nearly 80% of Republicans believe higher education is headed in the wrong direction because of professors bringing their political and social views into the classroom. Republicans are far more likely than Democrats (73% to 56%) to assert that the problem of students not receiving skills they need to succeed in the workplace is a major reason why higher education is headed in the wrong direction. And three-quarters of Republican respondents felt that rampant political correctness is a significant problem in American higher education.
So A Patriot’s History, they say. That’s what is needed. But what’s the opposite of a Patriot? A traitor, someone who is ashamed of their country, or disloyal, or dangerous. You have seen in recent months where rhetoric like this leads. From “Send her Back!” to “Blood and Soil!” to caged children, the dead in a Texas Walmart killed by an armed racist who hated Mexicans, this sort of rhetoric can escalate quickly and violently.
History is such a fraught subject—it always has been, but now, especially so. It matters. And the work historians do is often implicated in assaults on what makes this country great, a menace to what the Boston Review called the “fragile patriotism of the American Conservative.” If only we would stop harping on the bad stuff.
So let me give you a definition: for those of us who are historians for our living, history is the study of continuity and change, measured across time and space, in peoples, institutions, and cultures. It is not a science, but it is a discipline. When we do our work properly, we ask questions about the past, we dig like badgers for the evidence we need to answer these questions, examine and assess this evidence with our eyes, ears, and hearts open, and then try to present our answers with a measure of grace and style. We must be truthful, honest, always, when it comes to this evidence. We want to persuade you that our answer is right, our thesis correct, and our questions important. Sometimes we succeed. Sometimes we fail. The measure of this must be the quality of the evidence and the strength of our reasoning.
As a result, history can be a brutal business. We question everything. We are not in the business of telling you want you want to hear. History can provide us with an explanation for what happened, why, and the difference it made, but it seldom provides us with comfort, and solace, and your cherished myths will find no shelter with us around. It can be dark and violent and, at times, filled with heroism and bravery indeed, but there is also deceit and evil. When the great ancient Greek historian Thucydides wrote in his history of the Peloponnesian War, that “war is a violent teacher,” it for him was not a comforting story at all, but one of the darkest, most brutal depictions of human nature to appear in the western tradition.
And about those questions that historians ask. When I was taught long ago how to be a historian in my research methods class at California State University at Long Beach, my professor emphasized the importance of objectivity. Several years later, one of the professors that I studied with at Syracuse wrote at length about the historic emergence of objectivity as a value in historical scholarship. Many of those who criticize our work may raise objections that we are biased, and driven by our agendas to predetermined outcomes, that we lack objectivity. Bias and prejudice and ideology can indeed cause the undisciplined to ask loaded or bad questions, or to read the evidence in a distorted manner, to make it say things that it does not say. That is bad history. But our preconceptions, as well, which we can think of as the lenses through which we look at the world, color our perceptions of what is good and bad, right and wrong.
The point I would like to make is that all historical writing, whether it is the essay assigned you by teacher or professor, or a term paper, or a doctoral dissertation or a book, is an attempt to answer a question. And whether we are on the right or the left, the questions that present themselves to us as historians—that strike us as important, and worth answering, and worth investing all the time, travel, expense and energy to answer, come to us from our experiences in life, and in the archives, from our hard work, and, quite often, from our sense that all is not well. That is as true for Zinn as it is for Schweikart and Allen.
My experience has been that if you read history long enough, eventually you will feel regret. Asking why a certain reality is ours can lead the curious mind to wonder if indeed other realities were possible. And if other possibilities existed, why did they not come to be? Who benefited from this particular outcome, and what might they have had to lose through other outcomes? And if one of these possible outcomes seems superior to our current state of affairs, how do we get there, or why did we not get there? Questions, you see? History, this process of asking about continuity and change across time and space, can make clear the yawning gap between the way things are and the way things might have been.
If history can help us identify alternative paths, how can we responsibly look away? To ask, “Why This?” leads easily to “why not that?”
Doing history well forces us to always be willing to reconsider our assumptions, and sometimes it involves so profound a reassessment that it becomes difficult to abide, for example, the continued presence of statues or monuments commemorating a particular part of the past. These statutes—these monuments—are texts, right? They make a claim, state an assertion about the past. They argue for the significance of this, or that, or another person, place, or thing. They offer an interpretation, and the assumptions and the evidence behind those assertions—it is our job as citizens and scholars to question them. Sometimes these monuments, these interpretations, are based on myth more than history.
What’s the difference? Myths are stories that are not completely false, but that we accept and repeat anyways because of their explanatory power. They explain what we claim to stand for, what we believe in, why we fear what we fear, who we are and how we came to be.
And so, at last, we come to Christopher Columbus, who is one of these mythical figures. He is perhaps better known as a symbol than for what and who he actually was. Take, for instance, President Trump’s proclamation commemorating Columbus Day in October of 2018. It is routine for Presidents to make a proclamation on Columbus Day. 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.” Columbus’s “daring journey,” 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.
There is nothing in this statement that is glaringly incorrect, as far as it goes. But it is selective, as I will point out, and incomplete. Still, these sentiments are widespread. Let me give you another example: A guy named Alejandro Bermudez wrote an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal denouncing efforts at Notre Dame University to cover up murals depicting scenes of Columbus. Politically correct students, in his view, were determined to erase one of the great figures in the history of Europe and the Americas. Bermudez said that Columbus was “ahead of his time.” Native peoples lived lives that were solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short, Bermudez suggested, and they practiced human sacrifice. “In bringing the first of many missionaries who showed millions of people the path to salvation,” he wrote, Columbus helped put an end to this barbarism.
The Columbus Day holiday, of course, has its own history. It found its origins in the Italian-American community. Columbus, from Genoa, sailed in the service of Ferdinand and Isabella, the authors of the Spanish Reconquista, and in 1492 he “discovered” America. He was, his advocates claim, an Italian and an American hero. The holiday in his honor asserted that Italians, themselves victims of bigotry and discrimination, were Americans, too. And so it goes. A long-time conservative talk show host on AM Radio in Rochester, New York, where I live asserted via tweet on Columbus Day that “other than the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the discovery of the Americas by Columbus was the most important event in human history.”
There is a defensiveness in all of this, and in Schweikart and Allen’s book as well. That is because a growing number of people have argued that there is nothing edifying in the story of Columbus, save for the native peoples who at times and places survived the carnage. It is a story rife with avarice, violence, and bigotry. So we see a movement with scholars playing a role, writing polemical works like Kirkpatrick Sale’s The Conquest of Paradise or David Stannard’s American Holocaust, but led largely by indigenous peoples throughout the Americas, calling on all of us to reconsider the Columbus holiday. It is worth pointing out that there was not one mention in the President’s proclamation, or in similar statements by others, of the catastrophe that followed in the wake of discovery.
In his 2017 proclamation Trump said that “the permanent arrival of Europeans to the Americas was a transformative event that undeniably and fundamentally changed the course of human history and set the stage for the development of our great Nation. Therefore, on Columbus Day, we honor the skilled navigator and man of faith, whose courageous feat brought together continents and has inspired countless others to pursue their dreams and convictions — even in the face of extreme doubt and tremendous adversity.” Not one mention of native peoples. Many of us see that as a problem because native peoples were not incidental to this story, and that, in fact, one cannot arrive at a full understanding of the Columbian encounter, and indeed American history, without assessing its consequences for native peoples. We are witnessing a reaction against the very notion that native peoples have a place in this story that is worth remembering and retelling.
So the Columbus Day holiday is under siege. He discovered nothing, some of his critics point out, for the “New World” he stumbled across in search of the riches of Cathay was already occupied by millions of people. The 500th anniversary of Columbus’s voyages in 1992 reawakened interest in the explorer and his actions in the New World, and that attention did not cast Columbus in a good light. Recently, a growing number of colleges and municipalities across the country have recognized Indigenous Peoples’ Day, to be held on the federal Columbus Day holiday.
Now, an Italian-American friend of mine asked me once why any one of the other 364 days of the year could not be chosen for Indigenous Peoples Day. In his view, the movement to obtain recognition for Indigenous Peoples’ Day generated conflict where none was needed, and caused offense to Italian-Americans. I do understand this. Similar arguments were raised in this town, when a petition was presented to recognize Indigenous Peoples’ Day. The answer given by its proponents is that the Columbus Day holiday many native people now view as a day for mourning the victims of an American holocaust and 500 years of genocide.
The Columbian Encounter is the beginning of a horror story for the native peoples of the Americas, North, South, and Central, as well as the indigenous population of the Caribbean, who were quickly destroyed as autonomous peoples by the Spanish newcomers. Columbus, his supporters might argue, gets too much of the blame. He did nothing to native peoples in North America because he never set foot on the North American continent. This much is true, but Columbus has become, and perhaps always has been, a symbol standing in for the fundamental violence of discovery. For some he is a symbol of heroism and bravery, for others a symbol of racism and genocide.
Long ago I taught at a one-day NEH gathering on the Blackfeet Reservation way up in northwestern Montana. The subject was children’s literature that treated in different ways the history of America’s native peoples. One of the books was Michael Dorris’s Morning Girl (1992), written by a Native American novelist. The story followed Morning Girl and her brother Star Boy, indigenous children playing and exploring in the “Pre-Columbian” Caribbean. It is a story that is wise and gentle. But at its close, it takes a darker turn. Morning Girl swims out to see a strange sight approaching the beach.
Dorris ends the story with a lengthy excerpt from Columbus’s journal:
In order that they would be friendly to us — because I recognized that they were people who would be better freed and converted to our Holy Faith by love than by force — to some of them I gave red caps, and glass beads which they put on their chests, and many other things of small value, in which they took so much pleasure and became so much our friends that it was a marvel. Later they came swimming to the ships’ launches where we were and brought us parrots and cotton thread in balls and javelins and many other things, and they traded them to us for other things which we gave them, such as small glass beads and bells. In sum, they took everything and gave of what they had very willingly. But it seemed to me that they were a people very poor in everything. All of them go around as naked as their mothers bore them; and the women also, although I did not see more than one quite young girl. And all those that I saw were young people, for none did I see of more than 30 years of age. They are very well formed, with handsome bodies and good faces. Their hair coarse — almost like the tail of a horse-and short. They wear their hair down over their eyebrows except for a little in the back which they wear long and never cut. Some of them paint themselves with black, and they are of the color of the Canarians, neither black nor white; and some of them paint themselves with white, and some of them with red, and some of them with whatever they find. And some of them paint their faces, and some of them the whole body, and some of them only the eyes, and some of them only the nose. They do not carry arms nor are they acquainted with them, because I showed them swords and they took them by the edge and through ignorance cut themselves. They have no iron.
Their javelins are shafts without iron and some of them have at the end a fish tooth…. All of them alike are of good-sized stature and carry themselves well. I saw some who had marks of wounds on their bodies and I made signs to them asking what they were; and they showed me how people from other islands nearby came there and tried to take them, and how they defended themselves; and I believed and believe that — they come here from tierrafirme to take them captive. They should be good and intelligent servants, for I see that they say very quickly everything that is said to them; and I believe that they would become Christians very easily, for it seemed to me that they had no religion. Our Lord pleasing, at the time of my departure I will take six of them from here to Your Highnesses in order that they may learn to speak…
Now, when you look at this passage, what do you see?
Morning Girl, then, is the story of that child who Columbus saw as his men approached landfall in October of 1492, and whose gentleness and innocence led the wayward Admiral to conclude that her people would make good servants.
We spent quite a bit of time that morning discussing Dorris’s book. The Native American teachers from Blackfeet felt very differently about the book than did some of the non-native teachers. The Blackfeet teachers all agreed that if they were to use Morning Girl in class, they would cut out that last piece. They would have physically removed the last page from the book. Too painful, and too traumatic for the children who might read it, they thought. In Fourteen-Hundred and Ninety-Two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue…and contemplated how indigenous children might make good slaves.
Columbus was a brilliant navigator. He discovered routes across the Atlantic that blazed the trail for subsequent colonization of the Americas. No question. But there is more to this story. Columbus sought the riches of Cathay, of course. He sought gold and spices and the exotic riches European explorers knew could be found in the Orient. Zinn makes a big deal in the opening pages of his book about Columbus’s greed. But Columbus found little of value, and the expense of the expeditions pushed Columbus to find some other commodity. The consequences were horrifying. While the scholars who have looked at the question disagree, at times intensely, over the size of the population of the Americas and the Caribbean before Europeans arrived, there is little doubt as to what happened afterwards. By the 1550s, a mere sixty years after Columbus arrived and described those docile native peoples in the Caribbean, they had ceased to exist as a people, and many Caribbean Islands became eerie, uninhabited paradises.
To be fair, Columbus and his supporters did not set out to initiate a new world genocide. They wanted empire. They wanted to extend the reach of Christendom. They wanted wealth. They extended the Reconquista that drove the forces of Islam out of the Iberian Peninsula outwards across the Atlantic.But the findings were paltry. Slavery offered a critical solution of funding this “enterprise of the Indies.” In February of 1495, Columbus sent 550 Indians from Española crammed into four ships. These he chose out of the 1600 brought to the docks because they were “the best males and females.” On the passage home, about 200 of them died, their bodies tossed into the sea. Those who survived arrived in Spain in a weakened state. In effect, Columbus inaugurated the Middle Passage, complete with the overcrowding and high mortality rates associated with African slavery.
His enslaving plans reached their peak in 1495-1496. “Under the protection of the Holy Trinity, from here [his new world] we can send all the slaves needed, and if the information that I possess is correct, we could sell four thousand slaves who will be worth at the very least twenty cuentos.” The shipment of slaves on this scale would have required thirty to forty ships, a massive undertaking. As Andres Resendnez has pointed out in his book The Other Slavery, Columbus would have turned the new world into a slave exporting center, were it not for his monarch’s reluctance to enslave the people whose souls they hoped to save. But more potent than the King and queen’s opposition to a transatlantic trade in slaves was the growing number of colonists’ recognition that those native peoples were needed to harvest the New world’s riches, through labor systems like the encomienda, which came to resemble many of the elements of slavery.
If you read excerpts from Bartolome De Las Casas’s Devastation of the Indies–and if you are a student in a Native American history course treating this period you likely will–you can read about the sheer brutality of the Spanish conquistadors who followed Columbus. Las Casas provides a first-hand account of the first modern genocide: Spanish ships able to sail homeward without need of navigational instruments because all they needed to do was follow the trail of floating corpses, enslaved Indians who died on the Atlantic crossing. Las Casas described how Spanish colonists could buy human flesh for their dogs, and how Spanish war dogs tore native peoples literally limb from limb. Las Casas described the competition between conquistadors to see who could run through the most Indians with one thrust of the pike, and how Spaniards burned native peoples in groups of thirteen in honor of Jesus and the apostles, and bashed their children’s heads in by swinging them against the rocks.
Historians long have focused upon so-called “Virgin Soil Epidemics”, that took millions of indigenous lives, but there are problems in connecting these biological explanations with what the first-hand observers wrote. Las Casas, who arrived in 1502, said that greed was the reason that Christians “murdered on such a vast scale,” killing “anyone and everyone who has shown the slightest sign of resistance,” and “subjected all males to the harshest and most iniquitous and brutal slavery that man has ever devised for oppressing his fellow men, treating them, in fact, worse than animals.” It is true that Las Casas became famous for championing the humanity of native peoples, and he may have had a motive therefore to trump up these charges of brutality, but the same descriptions were given by other early observers.
And all this brutality, all the subjugation that occurred under the aegis of the Spanish encomienda system, exacerbated the consequences of epidemic diseases, which in places killed off 80% of the population. Brutality made native peoples less able to resist the onslaught of disease. Millions died. They were not all killed by Columbus, but the deaths followed from processes of colonization he pioneered, with which he is so closely associated by both his critics and his champions.
So here’s the thing. I really do not want to talk about Columbus. I am not terribly interested in the claims of those who support his colonizing ventures. Let me suggest an alternative way of looking at this period, one made more viable perhaps if we recast Columbus Day as Indigenous Peoples’ Day. We can focus on heroism and bravery, but that does not get us very far. We can focus on victimization and cruelty. God knows, Columbus and his successors were violent and brutal and victimized many. No one can look at the documents and question this reality. But to focus on victimization alone does a deep disservice to the history of native peoples.
In my own work, to the extent that the sources permit, I try to tell the story of the first European explorers who came to North America from the Indians’ perspective, reading these sources against the grain, considering sources like oral tradition and archaeology that American historians a generation ago when I started out were reluctant to use. What native peoples saw when they looked at these newcomers, their strategic calculations, how they fit the Europeans into their conceptual universe, these are questions that interest me. If you look at the story of the French explorer Jacques Cartier, who sailed into the St. Lawrence River in the 1530s, or his Spanish contemporary Coronado who wandered throughout the American southwest, or Soto’s violent exercise in futility in the Southeast, or the Juan Pardo expedition, or Cabrillo’s ineffectual reconnaissance of the California coast, or even the Roanoke voyages of 1584-1590, you cannot help but see one consistent theme. It is so obvious in the surviving documents. What is clear in every account is the utter dependence of the newcomers upon the native peoples who cautiously welcomed them into their communities, cultivated them as military allies and trading partners, enlisted them in their struggles with their neighbors, and contemplated transforming them into kin. When the newcomers wore out their welcomes in North America, their enterprises were doomed, their situation worse than desperate. These European explorers discovered what they believe they discovered only because native peoples allowed them to do so. And the effects of the visits by these European sojourners were remarkably short-lived, the consequences fleeting. Even with De Soto, who many scholars long had blamed for spreading epidemic disease into the continent’s interior, we now know from the work of historians like Paul Kelton and anthropologists like Robbie Etheridge that his disastrous expedition had little long-term effect. The wasting plagues came in the seventeenth century, not the sixteenth, a product of an Anglo-American trade in Native American slaves, the scope of which was vast and mind-boggling. Before roughly 1720, more Native American slaves were exported from the American colonies than African slaves imported
Commemorating Indigenous Peoples’ Day in this way need not belittle or demean the western tradition. What it does do is allow us to pay attention to the experience of those native peoples whose losses were Europeans’ gain, and who have endured and survived through five centuries of discrimination, dispossession, and slaughter. If, after all, any number of people in our nation’s history had had their way, native peoples would be gone: They would have been wiped out by warfare and epidemic and chronic disease; or they would have been “removed” to make way for the “settlers” who championed the rise of Andrew Jackson in the first few decades of the nineteenth century; or confined on tiny reservations until the missionaries and teachers and government farmers wiped away any trace of their identity as native peoples; or assimilated into the American body politic; or “terminated” in the middle decades of the twentieth century, with the reality of their native nations erased by congressional statute. Indians were supposed to disappear. Viewed as unfit, native peoples were not supposed to survive. If any number of people had their way, Native American people would not be here to call for an Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
A final point we need to discuss, one that many historians of this subject feel keenly. The reaction to Indigenous Peoples’ Day coming from the political right reflects the increasingly oft-expressed anger of white males at nearly any expression of grievance by people of color. Protestors who assert that “Black Lives Matter, and who complain about the alacrity with which militarized police deploy violence against African Americans are dismissed as violent; the protests of principled men like Colin Kaepernick and other African-American NFL players is regarded as an assault on the flag, and a demonstration of a lack of patriotism, with no discussion whatsoever of the issues that generated those protests. Suggestions that monuments to racist Confederates be removed or revised are treated as an assault on white identity and southern heritage; and the recent New York Times “1619” series, which historians will tell you was entirely reasonable, is maligned by the right as “propaganda.” Native peoples, meanwhile, are told to get over it. The crimes you “allegedly” suffered took place long ago, and therefore the problems occurring in your communities are entirely your fault. No attempts at truth and reconciliation as in Canada, no “Sorry Day” as in Australia. Nope, just a bunch of people saying, at best, “Bummer, but we had nothing to do with that.”
I have been teaching and writing about Native American history for a long time, more than thirty years. Every day when I talk with my very good students, I realize that I still have so much to learn. Every time I read new scholarship, I realize that there are so many more stories out there that we should tell. I will be a student of this subject forever.
But one thing is so very clear to me. Racism towards Native Americans is a real thing. The inequalities experienced by native communities are significant. The statistics do not lie. History is a force in that story. Its presence is keenly felt and, for those who wish to see it, clearly visible. New York, for example, where I have lived for all but five of the last twenty-seven years, became the Empire State, through a systematic program of Iroquois dispossession. You could not have one without the other.
The transactions through which New York acquired Iroquois land happened a long time ago, but these were transactions that violated federal laws the United States lacked the power and perhaps the willingness to enforce. These were not acts of nature. They were not inevitable. They were crimes. The Supreme Court has held that these illegal transactions occurred so long ago that nothing can be done to right these wrongs, but that does not mean that the rights retained by native peoples should be ignored, or their history dismissed.
New York’s native peoples have seen, through a long history, their homelands invaded. They experienced waves of epidemic disease. They faced dispossession, and then the effort to “remove” them to new homes in Arkansas, or Wisconsin, or the Indian Territory, and then to re-educate their children, and disable their governments. Disease, warfare, dispossession, diaspora: the injuries occurred a long time ago, but their legacies remain. And when native peoples and their allies suggest that we commemorate that history on a special day, one up to now associated with what they see as the symbol of a genocidal process against native peoples, their arguments are dismissed.
Columbus Day found its origins in discrimination against Italian-American immigrants. We were here from the beginning, Italian-Americans said, and we have as great a claim to this continent as any other group. In celebrating the mythical Columbus, the holiday has seldom encouraged any significant and honest discussion of the consequences of the Columbian Encounter, a process which was, as historian Alfred Crosby showed a long time ago, a global process much bigger than one wayward Genoese mariner. It is time for the bad history and the myth associated with this day to be reconsidered, and if recognizing Indigenous Peoples’ Day helps I am all for it. If you oppose Indigenous Peoples’ Day, you’re too late. It is coming. So let’s talk about Columbus, to be sure, and the European invasion of America, but let’s do so with our eyes firmly upon those native peoples whose losses were Europeans’ gain, and who have endured and survived through five centuries of discrimination, dispossession, and slaughter.