MEDINA-TAYAC: Columbus’ legacy of categorization

“In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” This rhyme pervades elementary schools across the United States on the second Monday of October. Teachers often briefly state that we celebrate Columbus Day to commemorate the friendly discovery of the American continents, then skip to the first Thanksgiving. What schools overlook are the effects of that voyage: Columbus devastated indigenous communities like the Awarak and Taíno with disease, extraction of natural resources, forced labor, rape and outright genocide.

This less-glamorous narrative has become familiar to most people in the Americas. For that reason, no other American nations celebrate Columbus Day. Day of the Americas, Day of Respect for Cultural Diversity and Day of the Latino Race are examples of holidays that acknowledge painful histories and celebrate the resilience of native cultures.

In the United States, Indigenous People’s Day serves as an alternative to Columbus Day and similarly celebrates the survival of American Indian people and cultures. The day also offers us an opportunity to reflect on and address the issues brought about and symbolized by Columbus’s arrival. Many Native peoples throughout the hemisphere are still hurt by disease, discrimination and extreme poverty.

But at Yale, my Native peers and I don’t face these specific challenges. Rather, we are attacked by a more subtle part of Columbus’s legacy: the pressure to conform to a stereotypical image in order to be recognized as a “real Indian.” When I identify myself as a Native American, the most common response is the loathed question, “How Native are you?” The question itself is problematic; never are white Americans asked how European they are.

Our obsession with racial measuring and categorization mostly stems from policies instated by Columbus and early Spanish colonial rulers. Society in New Spain was organized into a racial hierarchy based on whites’ supremacy over imported Africans and Native Indians. But as most of the people in the colonies came from mixed racial backgrounds, an extremely meticulous hierarchy called casta (“caste”) emerged. The specificity was absurd. For example, there was a specific category for someone who was half-Indian, one-sixteenth white and seven-sixteenths black, called salta atrás (“jump back”).

This colonial practice developed into our modern obsession with racial categorization in the United States. It manifests itself in the shared experiences of many Native students, for whom questions like “How Indian are you?” or “What are you?” are not only unanswerable, but also reflective of a lack of knowledge that belies the diversity and unique identities present in Native America.

Many sovereign Indian nations only enroll members with a minimum blood quantum, a measure of so-called Indian blood created by the United States government. While the government initially created the measure to restrict rights on the basis of race — a manner of categorization reminiscent of the colonial casta — tribal authorities now use the quantum to define who is “Native enough” for membership. Restricting entitlement to tribal resources to those who can prove they have an arbitrary fraction of Indian ancestry seems no less ridiculous than assigning someone social privileges based on, say, 1/16 of his or her ancestry. Not only does this process deny many culturally involved people membership to their tribe, it also reinforces the false idea that to be Indian is to be part of a rapidly shrinking ethnic group, and by extension a decreasing cultural presence.

As we reject the colonial past of Columbus, it is also important to reject the legacy of racial hierarchy of Spanish colonial rule that remains prevalent in our society. At Indigenous Peoples’ Day celebrations today, you will see Native students from diverse regions and heritage expressing their unique identities. This in itself accomplishes the goal of Indigenous Peoples’ Day: to remind the 97.2% non-Native Yale student body that we are a presence that defies categorization.

Sebastian Medina-Tayac is a freshman in Davenport College. Contact him at


  • moorah2011

    Proud of you for writing this and really proud of the Native community at Yale.

    -Native Alum 2011

  • ycollege14

    Really nice article Sebastian. You bring up not one but 3 critical issues- the violence perpetrated by Colombus and his fellow colonizers, the issues of extreme racial categorization and hierarchy in the U.S. often to the exclusion of all other forms of evaluating an individual, and some Native people’s own prejudices regarding identity.

  • basho

    I will be celebrating the positive impacts of Columbus’ voyage today

    • Yale12

      Do you also celebrate the scientific and cultural contributions of the Nazis on Holocaust Remembrance Day?

      • phantomllama

        False equivalence gone crazy.

        There is no room for balance in the minds of people like you.

        • Yale12

          There were also many advancements made under Hitler. Why are you asking for “balance” in when considering the perpetrator of one genocide but not another?

        • xfxjuice

          Most of what scientists know about how the body reacts to freezing temperatures is a direct result of the Nazi’s experiments.

      • River_Tam

        Do you also mourn Dr. King cheating on his wife and plagiarizing his essays? Do you mourn Thomas Jefferson and George Washington keeping slaves on Independence and President’s Day? Do you remember the Suspension of Habeas Corpus under Lincoln every February? Do you think about My Lai on Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day? Or perhaps the Pequot War every Thankgiving?

        • SY10

          King, Jefferson, Washington, and Lincoln all made major moral contributions to human society, from the establishment and development of democracy in America, to the end of slavery, to major advances in the basic civil rights of African-Americans. Columbus made no moral advance; rather he merely advanced human geographic knowledge. And that only by accident; he was wrong about the size of the Earth, and was extremely lucky that the Americas (which he knew nothing about) happened to be in his way.

          In contrast, on the moral faults side, King had a personal moral failing that only affected those close to him, and one shared by many, many other men and women. Jefferson and Washington failed to transcend the morality of their time. Lincoln made a difficult choice (though one I agree was wrong) that he believed necessary for a greater purpose. Columbus, however, began a process of slavery, genocide and conquest that led to the deaths of the tens of millions of people.

          Perhaps you can understand why some might consider King, Jefferson, Washington, and Lincoln worth celebrating, but not Columbus?

        • Yale12

          There’s kind of a difference between an adulterer, even a slave owner, and a perpetrator of genocide.

    • SebiMT

      And we are mourning the lost opportunities for constructive and positive economic and cultural exchange that could have taken place in 1492, which instead became a bloodbath of ethnic cleansing campaigns and extortion to the most horrific extent.

  • phantomllama

  • Quals

    Somewhere Elizabeth Warren is nodding her head vigorously

    • SebiMT

      I’m advocating for people who identify as Native and are a part of Native culture, but may not necessarily look or act the stereotype American society has come to accept. I don’t know the ins and outs of the Warren case, but it seems to me that she isn’t either, or at least hasn’t been through her whole life. Her battle is not mine or ANAAY’s, reserve your frustration to that individual, not to a whole group of people.

  • factuality

    The Native population makes up less than one percent of the total population of the United States yet still comprises 2.8 percent of the student body.

    Everyone is perfectly aware that you are here.

    • SebiMT

      That’s a good observation, but remember the criteria the US government uses to determine who is Native is very different and more restrictive than Yale’s, a liberal institution. Also take into account the unfortunate but existing (and growing) prevalence of “box-checkers,” those who indicate they are American Indian on their applications but are not actually Native, do not identify as Native, are not a part of the culture, or are not involved in any Native community, and have no plans to do so.

      • factuality

        The the US government determines that figure through census data, where respondents are asked “to mark what race this person considers himself/herself to be.”

        I’m not sure how that is different or more restrictive than checking a box in response to a similarly-worded question on the Common App.

  • redman

    No one asks a person of European descent, how European are you because the people of European do not ask for special privileges. Blacks get affirmative action, Indians get gambling and land. So it’s a valid question.

    • SebiMT

      And yet European Americans enjoy the greatest wealth, social privilege and political power. They are the most overrepresented racial group at Yale. But its tremendously ignorant and a gross oversimplification to say that Indians deserve to be victims of racial categorization and pseudoscientific eugenic policies because they get “gambling and land.” Most Indians don’t benefit from gambling, and Indians have lost more and more land even in recent history. Indians are still by far the most oppressed and disenfranchised group in the United States. There are countless statistics on the huge economic, social, political, and health disparities between Native people and the rest of the American public. I’m sure you can find those statistics with a quick Internet search.

      • LtwLimulus90

        Aren’t Asians more overrepresented than whites?

      • factuality

        “They are the most overrepresented racial group at Yale”

        This is blatantly misleading and untrue.

  • anothervoice

    Sebi, I really do sympathize with this article. I do not think that the blood quantum system is the best system. But how do you account for people who will try to exploit resources for Native students who are not “racially” native or identify with Native communities or culture? Also how do you account for indignity outside of the US? Does the NACC account for native Latinos? They are students at Yale who fit this category.

    • jajagabor

      I agree! As a Latino of Indigenous descent, I often feel alienated from the Native community at Yale because it seems there is a larger emphasis on those native peoples from the area we currently define as the United States. My grandfather was an Indian from high in the mountains of Mexico who spoke a Native dialect and was the victim of ethnic conflicts in that area. Growing up, I always acknowledged and was proud of my indigenous heritage.

      Many of my fellow indigenous Latinos don’t feel represented by the official Native groups on campus, but we would really like to partake in this common identity and we want to share our own struggles as Indigenous peoples as well. However, it seems to me that the discourse in the Yale Native community is geared toward US Indigenous communities. I hope we can change this because I feel that these issues are simply too important to leave aside. I know the NACC is small and has limited resources, and can’t always be comprehensive, but I really hope you will reach out to those in the Latino community and in Latino groups who really want to talk about these things as well. There are more of us than you may think and you will find many allies and partners in this community.

      • SebiMT

        I hope you know we’re in the midst of getting that partnership seriously going. I’m of mixed Latino and Native heritage as well, and I really understand the importance of this solidarity. Now that we have enough people and cohesion for the first time, we can really start working on this. It’s not that ANAAY doesn’t value it, it’s just been a matter of size and lack of resources.

    • SebiMT

      We need to address these issues– I never said these solutions would be easy to find. But “blood quantum” and the racist “boxing in” of people it comes from needs to go first.

  • CharlieWalls

    I turned to one of the Wikipedia essays on the subject of Columbus Day and found a worthwhile variety of information, with references. The boundaries on celebration do not seem as limited as described in this article. Moreover, 1492 is well known for The Expulsion in Spain by the same who sent the ships on their way westward. Altogether a fairly nasty transition year for well established cultures.

  • eli1

    Ummm maybe if you don’t want to be characterized we should get rid of the special privileges given to minorities, right? So its not ok to characterize based on race unless you need that distinction to get ahead I guess. Professor warren has shown this disgusting behavior all too well in my opinion. When will people realize that the way to combat racism is not by perpetuating institutional racism in the form of AA and the like. While you complain now, I am sure you will be the first one to “check the box” when it comes time to apply to grad school, jobs, etc. Thats usually the way things work.

    • Yale12

      Look, an angry white person.

      It’s so hard to be white in America. I really feel for you, man.

      • River_Tam

        So, what you’re saying is that you dismissed his complaint because of his race.

    • SebiMT

      There’s a difference between identifying yourself and being squeezed into a box by others. I’m an Indian, fully immersed in the culture, but people insistent on categorizing me will interrogate “how much” I am to qualify my identity. I check the Native American box because that’s who I am, defying others who may insist that I am only white or Latino based solely on my appearance and their lack of understanding. You see the difference? Again, white Americans and the wealthy are the most over-represented groups at Yale and enjoy more benefits than everyone else in our society. Due to the legacy of Columbus, American Indians’ conditions are exponentially worse than any other group.

      • perfume_blinders

        “White Americans and the wealthy are the most over-represented groups at Yale.”

        You can’t mean that White Americans are over-represented in the student body. 58% of Yale undergrads are White, and even if we assume that all non-box-checkers are white, that only bumps it up to 66%. As of the 2010 census, 72% of Americans identified as White…. so where’s the over-representation?? In the faculty? Probably, but that’s a separate problem.

        Is there a ridiculous number of ridiculously wealthy white Yale students? Absolutely. But conflating “white” with “wealthy” cheapens this entire conversation.

        (I got my numbers from the Yale factsheet, I’m curious where other people are getting theirs)

      • River_Tam

        > enjoy more benefits than everyone else in our society.

        Like special scholarships, preferable admission to college, and special National Merit awards in school, right?

      • factuality

        I’m not sure how “fully immersed” in the culture you can be having grown up in wealthy, suburban Maryland.

        That’s an insult to any and all peoples having grown up fully immersed in a unique and different culture.

  • River_Tam

    > The question itself is problematic; never are white Americans asked how European they are.

    What? I hear white people brag all the time about how their ancestors “came over on the Mayflower”.

    It is the Native American tribes themselves who have carved out a niche with special protections; it is this niche which forces them (and society) to adopt stringent restrictions that govern who can and cannot call themselves Native.

    > This in itself accomplishes the goal of Indigenous Peoples’ Day: to remind the 97.2% non-Native Yale student body that we are a presence that defies categorization.

    You just categorized yourself as Native, and 97.2% of Yale as ‘non-Native’. That’s not exactly ‘defying categorization’, is it?

    • ldffly

      I hear white people brag all the time about how their ancestors hit the USA in 1910 and went to work in a factory. Just a difference in where we live I guess!

    • Yale12

      Do you think the “niche” that Native Americans have “carved out” for themselves has anything to do with the fact that they were forced from their land and shipped to isolated, barren reservations? or maybe the fact that had their children systematically stolen from them until late into the twentieth century?

    • SebiMT

      I didn’t categorize myself as Native, I identified myself as Native. That’s who I am. I am Native American, that’s not categorization. The problem is when people try to qualify that identity.

      97.2% of people at Yale do not identify as Native, that’s a fact, not my categorization.

      • River_Tam

        You literally are saying “I don’t put people in boxes, unlike those jerks in that box over there”.

        • SebiMT

          Are you serious? I’m saying it’s a fact that 97.2% of Yale students don’t identify as Native American. That couldn’t be a more unbiased, clear fact. You’re mixing two concepts to continue this weird obsessive trolling, so this is hard to respond to. I’m saying 2.8% of Yalies identified as Native and 97.2% didn’t. If they are being honest about their identities, then that 2.8% are entitled to that identity without other students and institutions expecting them to qualify it based on a eugenic system.

          • LtwLimulus90

            I think you don’t know what the word “category” means

  • River_Tam

    Elizabeth Warren is getting pummeled because she abused the system to get ahead.

  • The Anti-Yale

    I always listen to the profundities of a Playgirl centerfold model over a Harvard Dean.

  • desch

    Thank you, Sebi! This is important.

  • The Anti-Yale

    Boy, I wish I kept a record of what I said. I have no idea what was so offensive. I believe I was making a direct analogy between what Elizabeth Warren and myself, since both of us were told by our parents that our great great great grand parents had married an Indian women.

    Now i remember, it was the use of the “s” term my mother used to describe an Indian woman which probably got my comments removed. I guess this is understandable, but it seems a bit insensitive to my mother.

    (Politically incorrect though she may have been she was always respectfully of other races, religions, genders and even sexual preferences. She would be 101 if she had lived, so you can imagine how broadminded she was for her day.)

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