Every year around Columbus Day I feel a great disturbance, as if a million history majors have cried out in terror as they try to decide if it's worth it to explain why the day is racist to friends and relatives on Facebook. And for the past two years the Oatmeal comic extolling the virtues of Bartolomé de las Casas Day instead of good ol' Chris floats around, and I have to make my own decisions about confronting racism all over again.
(Except for black people.)
As the Oatmeal's writer/artist, Matthew Inman, explains in an update at the bottom of the page*, Bartolomé, while he held fairly progressive views about not treating Natives like they were anything other than human, he believed for a very long time in slavery of Africans. Despite his efforts to keep fellow Europeans from enslaving, slaughtering, raping, and even feeding Natives to their dogs, he had very little to say on the same treatment of Africans until much later in his life when he denounced slavery in all it's forms. But trading one truly terrible white guy for a slightly less terrible white guy is a good way to fix the Columbus Day problem, right Inman?
Allow me to provide some alternatives.
Indigenous Peoples' Day
Seattle and Portland recently announced that they would be celebrating not Columbus Day but a day to recognized the contributions and history of Native Americans and Indigenous People around the world. High five, Pacific northwest population hubs! Sorry about the Italian-Americans getting all up in your face now.
Wounded Knee Day
It doesn't matter if you're talking about the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890 that left an estimated 300 Lakota dead at the hands of the United States Cavalry or the Second Wounded Knee in 1973 when more than 200 members of the American Indian Movement occupied the historical site and were fired upon by federal officials, the name holds a lot of meaning. In the former, dozens of men, women, and children lost their lives in the indiscriminate shooting. In the latter, federal officials and Natives traded gunfire for several months, killing many and injuring more. In the years that followed, Native participants were wrongfully triedand convicted of crimes they did not commit, leaders died under mysterious and violent circumstances (more on that in a bit)
Trail of Broken Treaties Day
Taking it's name from a cross-country protest and march on Washington that was staged by Native people in 1972, it takes an opportunity to remind people of the atrocities committed during the Trail of Tears (thanks, president who's still on our $20 bill despite contributing to the slaughter of thousands). On top of that, the name evokes the undeniable truth that the US government violated the law with most of their actions towards Native peoples. Even those who wouldn't care for the humanity of Native Americans, who don't particularly give a damn if they are mistreated or limited by institutional racism have to confront the fact that the government broke the law.
It's worth recognizing, particularly as most people who don't live near one, that much if not most of the Native population in the US live on reservations that they were forced onto (what with all the broken treaties). And while the reservations are ostensibly sovereign to an extent, they are managed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs...which historically was under the Department of War. Because apparently white America was in a constant state of war with the Native population until 1849, when the BIA was transferred to the Department of the Interior, which also manages national parks, wildlife conservation, property acquisition, and mining.** Six of the ten poorest counties in the US are in North or South Dakota, and along with a seventh in Arizona are almost entirely made up of reservations and Native populations. That's right. Seventy percent of the poorest counties in the US are made up of Native people living on land "given" to them by the government. Lack of jobs and education, as well as limited access to fresh food as traditional methods of farming, hunting, and gathering were banned or erased by government officials and well-meaning missionaries mean that reservation populations face an epidemic of drug addiction, malnutrition, obesity, diabetes, and alcoholism.
His Horses are Spirited Day
If you need an actual person to celebrate today, let's try this one out. This is the true name*** of Crazy Horse, an Oglala Lakota who lead warriors of several tribes together in battles against the US military to much success, including contributing to the defeat of Custer at the Battle of Little Big Horn. His ability to work with leaders of other groups and tribes and his personal bravery helped to create his lasting impression on the American historical landscape, though it has been corrupted on occasion by misinformation and fetishization. He stood against a tidal wave of oppression and violence when other leaders were beginning to cooperate with white leadership sent by the government, and that alone is worth recognition. It would also force people to revisit the history of the Native uprisings in the 1800s, and recognize that the 1970s were not the first time that Native people fought their treatment and it will not be the last. (Similar arguments could be made for Sitting Bull, Red Cloud, Spotted Elk, Geronimo, Tecumsah, and others. Crazy Horse is my personal pick because his memorial is in the middle of construction and has been for years; it is in some ways meant to be an answer to the desecration of the Black Hills that most of the area Native tribes hold holy when Mount Rushmore was built.)
If the man who created the Cherokee syllabary and allowed his people to become more literate than the surrounding white settlers doesn't deserve a day of his own, no one does. But I want Sequoyah Day to come with permission to smack any white celebrity that claims to be a descendant of a Cherokee princess.****
I could argue for Leonard Peltier Day, to recognize a man still imprisoned for the deaths of two federal officers, even though many believe him to have been wrongfully convicted due to his participation in the American Indian movement. Maybe Cora Reynolds Anderson Day would be better; she was elected to the Michigan State House of Representatives in 1924 and as such was first Native American woman in a state legislature. Or Diane Humetewa Day, the first female Native American federal judge, appointed just this year.
I could also argue for my personal favorite: Annie Mae Aquash Day. She participated in AIM activities throughout the early and mid 1970s, including occupying the Department of Interior headquarters in D.C. and the activities at Second Wounded Knee. She was found dead in 1975. Initially it was reported by an incompetent ME that she died of exposure, but she was in fact shot in the head. Her hands were cut off and sent to D.C. and she was buried as a Jane Doe. Only when AIM started kicking up a fuss did anyone pay any sort of attention to her murder. She was alcohol and drug free in a time when that was particularly remarkable in any community, let alone the Native American population. No one was convicted for her murder until 2004.
But maybe those names are too esoteric, or too controversial for some. But something needs to change. I don't care how many Italian-American groups get pissed off about it, but continuing to celebrate Columbus cannot be an option.
And now, as a palate cleanser, let's watch this video of an awesome six-year-old Rito Lopez kicking ass at a hoop dance competition. Maybe we can all agree to call it Rito Lopez Day next year?
Image of Second Wounded Knee participants courtesy of Denver Post.
Image of Crazy Horse Memorial courtesy of the Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation.
Image of Cora Reynolds Anderson courtesy of Michigan Women's Historical Center.
Video of Rito Lopez courtesy of Indian Country Today Media Network.
*Seriously, Inman...when people started confronting you about this, your reaction shouldn't be "I know and ignored it." Not even an apology for insisting that one kind of racism is better than another? That one kind of slavery isn't as bad as another? Fuck that, and fuck you for saying it.
**The DOI also as a single Deputy Assistant Secretary who manages "Human Capital & Diversity", including Human Resources, Office of Occupational Safety and Health (not the same as OSHA which is the Department of Labor), Office of Strategic Employee and Organizational Development, Office of Youth, Partnerships and Service, and the Office of Civil Rights. This is not the same Deputy Assistant Secretary that manages Native Hawaiian realations (that's the one who handles policy and international relations) or the assistant secretary who handles the BIA, who is not the same as the Special Trustee for American Indians. Also, there's a special Bureau for Indian Education. This department is freaking insane.
***Also maybe "His Horse(s) are Crazy" but translation isn't an exact science.