“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 email@example.com.