As a Native American, an enrolled member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe who was born and raised on a Indian reservation in South Dakota and is half-white thanks to my full-blood white father of French and Polish descent, I found the article written by Meghan Clyne ’03 regarding Columbus Day (“Columbus: no saint, but no Satan,” 10/16) marked by uninformed scholarship and riddled with stereotypes — interesting to say the least. While I respect Clyne’s right to an opinion and applaud debate, I must say that I can do nothing but feel extreme pity for the state of her character and laugh at the absurdness of her reasoning. There are several points of interest I would like to discuss with true “balance and historical honesty,” as someone who traces his ancestry back hundreds of years on both sides of the ocean.
The people who planned and participated in Indigenous Peoples Day were celebrating a remarkable feat in the history of humankind, not a bashing of European civilization, or even of the resourceful, skilled, seaman slave trader who was seeking a faster way to India in order to acquire spices more quickly so that the wealthy of Europe could continue to eat rotten meat, which they could only get down with lots of spices (all true). Ethnocentrism, anyone? Should we mention the Inquisition? Columbus’ landing marked the beginning of the end for many indigenous nations in the Western hemisphere. Over 500 distinct groups, each with their own unique language, culture, and religion no longer exist. There is debate about the exact population of the Americas, with 100 million being the high figure. Regardless, it has been proven that all but a few tribal groups experienced population decline from 90 to 99 percent, not counting those now-extinct groups. This all happened within a relatively short period of time. It is the equivalent of 280 million people dying in the United States within a year due to smallpox, chicken pox and other such infections. How did these infections spread?
It is true that Native Americans had not developed an immunity to European diseases because of our cleaner lifestyle (again, ethnocentrism?) and separation from other populations, and that whenever one population comes in contact with another there is bound to be an exchange of germs. We acknowledge and understand this basic principle. However, it is of great concern when the spread of these diseases was caused by germ warfare, which whites waged on American Indian populations by giving them smallpox-infected blankets and through other tactics. (For anyone who doesn’t know the history of Indian/White relations in the United States, I suggest spending a few months in Sterling Memorial Library.) By 1900 the Native American population in the United States was less than 100,000. It now stands at over 4 million. To bounce back from such deliberate death and destruction is cause for admiration, hence Indigenous Peoples Day. To oppose such a celebration of survival is sadistic.
Clyne’s assertion that we are disrespecting the victims of the Nazi Holocaust is unproven in my experience. Logically, it doesn’t make sense to say that if X happened, than it somehow lessens Y. In fact, I have found that it brings the two populations, Native American and Jewish, closer. I have described to my Jewish friends the experiences of my grandmother, who was forcibly taken from her home at the age of four and beaten every day with broomsticks by Jesuit nuns until the age of seven, when her father forcibly removed her from school just before she was about to be beaten by the head priest with a horse whip. I have also spoken of my great-grandmother, who was the only survivor of her family at the Wounded Knee Massacre, where over 300 men, women and children, (mostly old men, women and children) were first mowed down with a Gatling gun, then finished off with rifle butts to save bullets, by the U.S. Cavalry (who all received medals of honor for their deeds) while the Indians flew a white flag of truce and a U.S. flag. Then, I am able to not only sympathize, but also empathize with my Jewish friends. It also just so happens that it is often Jewish scholars who are the greatest advocates of Native American rights.
For Clyne to say that the United States has not attempted genocide — which is defined in the Macmillan Dictionary for College Students as “deliberate and methodical annihilation of a national or racial group” — of Native Americans shows a profound lack of historical understanding. Thousands of pages of documentation exist. Again, hit the library if you don’t believe me.
There is no room in this article to refute Clyne’s wildly ethnocentric views concerning the advancement of civilization. However, I would, if this debate sparks enough interest, invite those interested individuals to help set up a public forum where these issues can be further discussed.
In closing, I have only this to say: Every morning I say a traditional tribal prayer that my savage, illiterate ancestors used to say every morning thousands of years before me. I pray for good physical health, good help from people throughout the day, happiness, and wisdom for all humankind. To the writer of yesterday’s piece, I will remember to keep you in mind when I pray for these things.
Wizipan Garriott is a senior in Ezra Stiles College.