Honhongva: Take back Columbus Day

Indigenous Peoples’ Day commemorates the resilience of indigenous peoples worldwide, throughout campaigns of exploitation, prejudice, and outright genocide. But this year, you might know it as something different: the 518th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ landing in San Salvador. Columbus Day glorifies a history of injustice and historical fallacy; Indigenous Peoples’ Day is a chance to reevaluate. Even Yale, a bastion of progressivism, only employs two American Indian professors among nearly 3,000 faculty members.

But rather than observe an anti-Columbus Day, we choose to remember our indigenous ancestors and their strength in the face of oppression, racism and hostility. The survival, adaptation, expansion and continuation of indigenous peoples are surprising given the catastrophic mortality rates, assimilationist policies and historical white-washing they have suffered. Still, indigenous peoples are thriving all over the world.

From the Ainu of Japan to the Maori of New Zealand, indigenous peoples constitute a considerable share of the world’s population. Their common characteristic is that they are marginal to the states that claim jurisdiction over them. However, the experiences of these people have also fostered resistance and eventual revitalization.

The need for a solution to the problems plaguing indigenous people in such areas as human rights, education and health has resulted in considerable progress — perhaps most important, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Unfortunately, the United States was one of four countries who voted against the declaration. Despite this setback, we still work to reveal historical truths and reverse the tide of ignorance.

No, Columbus’ voyage did not discover a new world and initiate American history. Rather, Columbus put two worlds into permanent contact, both with rich histories and cultures. The America of 1492 was not a wilderness inhabited by primitive peoples without complex civilizations and sophisticated systems of religious and scientific belief. And yes, people died after “discovery” — millions of them, from deadly pathogens, displacement policies and ruthless termination.

We cannot afford to trivialize or romanticize such a past. Certain events in history change forever our conception of who we are and how we see the world. Colonialism was one of them. The common historical practice of representing aboriginals as static relics, saved by the individualism and ambition of colonizers, is facile.

Today, Indigenous Peoples Day, is a day both to celebrate the resilience of indigenous peoples worldwide and to confront these distortions about the legacy of Christopher Columbus. It is a day to think about the land you stand upon and to consider those who inhabited it before you or your ancestors arrived. I hope students will reconsider celebrating one man, and instead, lend a thought to an oppressed, but hopeful people.

Though the stories of indigenous peoples are distinct, today our voices are united. As a collective of peoples, we celebrate our culture, our language, our songs and our lives. We recognize that our common histories and current realities may, ultimately, bind our fates together. Today we show that we are alive and we are strong.

Comments

  • Quals

    Really, we are willing to accept some multicultural spin, but “sophisticated systems of religious and scientific belief?” They had not invented the wheel for goodness sake.

  • mhonhongva

    I am listed as the author of this column but did not write parts of this article. The YDN has published a draft with edits without my permission.

    Thank you,
    Michael Honhongva

  • FailBoat

    > The America of 1492 was not a wilderness inhabited by primitive peoples without complex civilizations and sophisticated systems of religious and scientific belief.

    Are we talking about the Mayans? Because if we’re not, then this sentence is complete hogwash. If this is referencing the Mayans, then it’s only mostly hogwash.

    We can debate the reasons for the relative lack of scientific development in the “New World”, but the fact remains that the Arabic, Western European, Chinese, Japanese, and Indian societies were all more technologically, scientifically, economically and culturally more advanced. There are reasons for this, of course – for one, there was a healthy exchange of ideas and goods between these cultures. For another, all these cultures had to deal with resource scarcity and existential threats from their neighbors in a way that Precolombian American cultures did not.

    But it does not change facts, and the attempt to engage in wholesale revisionism is jarring.

    > Even Yale, a bastion of progressivism, only employs two American Indian professors among nearly 3,000 faculty members.

    Percentage of Americans who identify as being Indigenous at least in part: 1.5%.
    Percentage of Indigenous who are under the age of 18: 38%
    Percentage of American Indians 25 years of age or older with at least a bachelors degree: 13%

    This might have something to do with it. This, or Yale hating Native Americans. One or the other, really.

  • smartypants79

    This is so unoriginal. Who could have predicted a “let’s recognize indigenous people’s” opinion piece on Columbus Day? Give me a break!

  • Yale12

    I’d like the YDN to address Michael Honghova’s assertion that he “did not write part of this article.” While it seems reasonable that the YDN may have to rewrite portions of news articles, it seems unacceptable to rewrite people’s opinions, especially entire “parts” of an article, and especially without communicating with the writer. This is the second time such a comment has appeared on a letter or opinion (the last one was a letter by a community member, and his comment was deleted) and it doesn’t seem like a sign of good editing.

  • hippiemc12

    @smartypants
    With all due respect, no one forced you to read this article. If a young person raising awareness about his heritage to his peers is so mind-numbing to you, stop reading college newspaper opinion columns.
    @Failboat
    Though the thrust of your point is correct, to say that American Indians were “culturally” less advanced than the other societies is going way too far and a tad offensive. Also I would think that American Indian history is pretty central to the overall history of America and thus should be well represented in the upper echelons of academia – that’s sort of the point of the holiday and the opinion piece.

  • FailBoat

    > Though the thrust of your point is correct, to say that American Indians were “culturally” less advanced than the other societies is going way too far and a tad offensive.

    If it is “way too far” to say that Precolombian American civilization was less culturally advanced than the cultures I listed prior, then it is because the term “culturally advanced” has no meaning at all. If the term has any meaning and creates any realistic metric, then my point stands.

    > Also I would think that American Indian history is pretty central to the overall history of America

    It is far less relevant than Precolombian European history. Lest someone call me a racist, I say this as a non-European individual who loves my own cultural history but understands its relative importance in the grand scheme of “American history”.

  • hippiemc12

    I personally don’t think “cultural advancement” has any very meaningful rubric (as opposed to technology, economy, or science). An opinion and a relatavistic one at that, so sue.

    I’m not denying the importance of European history, European-American history, Western civ or any of that; they should be and will be studied regardless of what anyone writes in the YDN. I do think that the American Indian perspective is uniquely valuable and should be richly represented at one of the top American institutions of higher learning. Nothing to be lost, a lot to be gained in the marketplace of ideas.

  • FailBoat

    > Nothing to be lost, a lot to be gained in the marketplace of ideas.

    Nothing to be lost? Funding is, at any given moment (obviously it increases over time), zero-sum. More money for Native American Studies means less funding for Asian History classes, Directed Studies, or or Biomedical Engineering. Something has to give.

    (Actually, I’d be all for Native American Studies if it defunded WGSS.)

    > I personally don’t think “cultural advancement” has any very meaningful rubric (as opposed to technology, economy, or science). An opinion and a relatavistic one at that, so sue.

    If the term is meaningless, I don’t know how what I said could be considered “a tad offensive”.

  • RexMottram08

    The first tribe Columbus met on Santo Domingo was grateful for protection from neighboring cannibals.

  • ps477

    “The first tribe Columbus met on Santo Domingo was grateful for protection from neighboring cannibals.”

    I’m sure the tainos are all extremely grateful for their enslavement, the fact that 90% of them died with 30 year’s of Columbus’s arrival, and that there are absolutely no survivors.

    “If the term is meaningless, I don’t know how what I said could be considered “a tad offensive”.”

    Even if there is no tangible way to measure culture, you clearly believe that your culture is superior, which is offensive. But you can’t be blamed for this- western culture is the dominant power in today’s world, and this is reflected in our education system. We don’t get to study cultures/history outside of Europe/America in depth (particularly Latin America) until college, and then only if you choose to.

  • hippiemc12

    Failboat: Try suggesting to a Korean person that his/her society was less “culturally advanced” than Japan, as evidenced by the fact that Japan occupied Korea for over three decades. I imagine most would be offended.
    Arguments of cultural superiority are particularly grating in this case given the history of Indian Schools and relentless action by the American Government over the years to induce American Indians to assimilate and for tribes to disband.

  • RexMottram08

    Why didn’t the indigenous peoples sail East to “discover” Europe?

    That’s not very geographically tolerant of them.

  • numol

    This is really sad — a dude writes a nice piece (as well as I can tell, anyway, what with it being published and edited without his permission and all) trying to educate the public about often-overwritten histories, and the Fearlessly Politically Incorrect show up throwing tomatoes. Nothing he said was untrue, or “spin”, or “revisionism”. I’m disgusted that so many people are *offended* by the idea that American Indians have always been (shock and awe) civilized people whose cultures deserve to be honored and respected.

  • michaelmack

    Even if the wheel-less cannibals lacked “civilization” comparable to the old world, the “new world” inhabitants did not need the diseases and higher levels of religious, social, cultural, political, and economic corruption and unsavory character that Euros imposed and which Americans ever since take to higher levels. The fanciful histories imposed by Europeans/Americans on the world does not change the fact that the new world was better off without them, it would have changed and matured without the Euros, or not. 250 years is not “old”, neither is 2000. Euros and Americans excel at manipulation and the creation of things artificial and ultimately useless – academia, theories, market economies, political parties, religious, educational and social systems, and legal systems that are about winning rather than justice – all of which ultimately serve only themselves and each other without true lasting redeeming values. New inventions, new theories, only add to the layers of artificial life, as does reliance on technology. Look at the cold hard facts of American life today to see the result – our physical and psychological problems, our addictions to status, to materialism, to one upsmanship in all its forms, look at our dying planet. For example, scientific “advances” in medicine are offered as proofs of the worth of technology, but what is overlooked is that other technologies – processed foods, artificial sweeteners, animals artificially bred, socially prescribed diet fads, addicting children to sweets – are the causes of most modern diseases. Euro “civilization” laid the seeds for modern peoples without the ability to sustain themselves without artifice – but rather by artificial and transitory measures of “success” – this is ultimately what euro “civilization” has produced. The new world inhabitants left to their own devices knew how to evolve and thrive without the Euros “civilization”. Their cultures may never have developed television, nuclear engines, or Blackberries, but are those true measures of a “civilization” or “success”? They understood many things the modern world has long since dismissed as “primitive” or worthless. In their long histories before the Euros they had created ancient lasting cultures that evolved within their means – a concept Americans can’t fathom. Their focus on the realities of life meant they did not need to create artifice to find meaning or to justify themselves. Yes, in the modern world the wheel has become essential, but in looking at the whole picture of human history and the direction our planet is taking, the world may have been better off without it. Perhaps the most unfortunate fallacy of “civilization” is the assumption that is has the authority to theorize, define, and “fix” anything, rather than seeing itself for what it is – the source of the world’s problems.