Indigenous Peoples’ Day is not intended to be simply a desecration of Christopher Columbus. Rather, it is an attempt to acknowledge what followed from his landing in the New World, the effects of which continue to affect the native populations of the Americas to this day. One only need examine the policies of this country’s government, under which Native Americans have suffered for the past 510 years, or the policies of governments such as Brazil, where as late as 1980, permits allowing the extermination of a given number of indios were distributed to anyone willing to pay the price.
The fact that these practices are, for the most part, overlooked by our own representatives in this purportedly representative democracy is the impetus behind the celebration of Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Granted, Columbus himself was not entirely responsible for the suffering of all indigenous peoples over the past 510 years; however, this does not acquit him from the gruesome actions perpetrated by those under his command — actions which have been well documented.
Had Columbus simply been the “intrepid Italian explorer” that Meghan Clyne so proudly holds him up to be (“Columbus: no saint, but no Satan,” 10/16) and had he been “seeking wealth, adventure and a safe haven from political persecution” and nothing else, there may be good reason to celebrate this man and his accomplishments, while confining our condemnations to those who actually took part in the extermination of indigenous people. This, however, is certainly not the case. Columbus did not depart from Spain with the altruist intentions you purport; rather, as his own diaries indicate (see Samuel Eliot Morrison’s “Journal and Other Documents on the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus”), he came with the expectation of encountering wealth belonging to others and it was his unambiguous intention to obtain this wealth by whatever means necessary. Although his initial intent was not to obtain wealth from the people of the Americas, this in no way justifies the horrific consequences that resulted from these actions against our people.
What is at issue here, however, is not Columbus’ voyage of discovery; rather, it is his return to the New World with a force of 17 ships given to him at his request by the Spanish crown. Upon this return to the New World and subsequent appointment as “viceroy and governor of the Caribbean Islands and the mainland of America,” Columbus instituted policies of encomiendas on the island of Espanola (present-day Hati and the Dominican Republic) and oversaw the systematic extermination of almost 99 percent of the native Taino population. According to Ward Churchill in “A Little Matter of Genocide,” by the time of Columbus’ departure in 1500, the native population had been reduced from as many as 8 million to about 100,000, and by 1514, with his policies still a part of the institution of government he created, the native population had dropped to a low of 22,000.
Granted, many of the deaths were the result of disease, but does this in any way absolve them from any guilt? It is widely known that many of the deaths during the Holocaust resulted from disease and the terrible working conditions the prisoners were subjected to, but these deaths are still seen as part of the total loss resulting from Nazi policies and are not justified by saying that the Nazis “may have erred in their ways” and “cannot be blamed for inadvertently spreading germs” within the prison population.
And, not all germs were spread “inadvertently” as Clyne would like to believe. It is well known among the educated community that Lord Jeffery Amherst instructed his men to use smallpox-contaminated blankets to “extirpate” the Ottawas. Given these widely known facts, we fail to see how our comparison of the suffering of indigenous peoples in the Americas with the suffering of the Europeans at the hands of the Nazis in any way “lacks historical integrity and disrespects the victims of the Nazi genocide.” If anything, we believe that these facts could only serve to bring those groups who have survived these similar struggles closer together. Our goal in holding this celebration every year is not only to dispel the myths surrounding the colonization of the New World, but to bring attention to the present-day struggle of indigenous peoples not only in the Americas, but around the world.
Columbus Day, while seen by many as the great beginning of “democracy, liberty, human rights, the belief in a transcendent god, and liberal education” in what was to become known as the United States, is seen by us as the great beginning of the Native American Holocaust. While the experience of the Europeans at the hands of the Nazis embodies the true meaning of the word (to be consumed by the flame), our holocaust was one in which our people, culture, land and ideas (one of which was the idea of democracy, shared by us with the Founding Fathers) were consumed by the metaphorical fire that raged across this continent and continues to rage to this very day.
John Harabedian and Matthew D. Houk are juniors in Saybrook College and Jonathan Edwards College, respectively. They are co-presidents of the Association of Native Americans at Yale.