Thoughts on Indigenous People Day

“Powwow” (Photo by Laura Hamilton courtesy Pixabay)

According to USA Today, if you live in Alabama, Alaska, Hawaii, Idaho, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Vermont and Wisconsin – plus the District of Columbia and more than 130 cities, then you observe Indigenous Peoples Day instead of (or in addition to) Columbus Day. To the others, including the U.S. government, it’s still Columbus Day.

When I went to the post office in my small Texas town to mail some books on that day it was closed. I mentioned this to a friend, but referred to it as Indigenous People Day. His response was a crack about revisionists. That got me thinking.

There’s been a lot of ruckus this year about discrimination, racism, and the darker side of United States history. Destroying national monuments and tearing down statues because some group finds them offensive as part of a violent protest of the past reflected in the present displays generations of anger and righteous indignation.

But it doesn’t change a thing.

Most law-abiding white people see only violence, disrespect, and lawlessness.

They don’t get the concept of generations of visceral resentment.

“Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

It’s important to consider the context of those times. With 20:20 hindsight it’s easy to see how events and situations that were acceptable centuries ago are now recognized as barbaric and reeking of white supremacy.

More often than not, this is a factual statement.

By today’s standards they were wrong.

Please pause a moment to watch the following video of Marlon Brando saying it far more eloquently than I ever could.

When I was in school many decades ago history class provided biased information. Any journalist knows that a story must contain who, what, when, where, why, and how. Back then history textbooks left out a critical element:

WHY!

We were taught to regurgitate events and dates, perhaps the location, but that was it. BORING! Furthermore, we were not taught to think about what happened, much less why, but simply to accept it as fact.

Fact?

Let’s talk about facts.


History books failed to mention that Native People were here first, had no understanding of the principle of property ownership, often held higher moral and spiritual values than their conquerors, and were defending territory given to them centuries before by the Great Spirit.


We had one side, that of the victors. The Baby Boomer generation grew up thinking Native Americans were savages who were simply in the way. This was further reinforced by movies and westerns on TV to say nothing of backyard games of cowboys and Indians.

History books failed to mention that Native People were here first, had no understanding of the principle of property ownership, often held higher moral and spiritual values than their conquerors, and were defending territory given to them centuries before by the Great Spirit.

Can you begin to see how offensive a holiday celebrating Columbus’ “discovery” of American would be to First Americans after generations of oppression in the supposed “land of the free and the brave?”

At the time of westward expansion–Manifest Destiny, if you will–these atrocities reflected the prevailing attitudes of the western world. The deeds and behavior now recognized as evil were considered normal, even heroic. And sadly, still are, in some parts of the world.

Fort Robinson Massacre

In many cases, Native American cultures were more advanced back then than the United States is today. Granted some were barbaric by western standards, such as the Maya and Aztec, but it’s important to remember that we invaded their land. Most tribes in North America were far more peaceful.

Treaties with First Americans were (and still are) broken as a matter of course. Chiefs would sign a document in good faith, often having no idea what it said, only to have what they thought was agreed upon never occur because Congress refused to ratify it. As far as they were concerned they had agreed to its terms and couldn’t understand why the white men who signed the document didn’t have the proper authority to guarantee their side of the agreement.

And it’s obvious that when indigenous people refused to give away their country, then genocide became the logical alternative.

Did you know that the Pope granted explorers permission to kill or enslave indigenous people? To the Catholic Church’s credit, this opinion eventually switched to missionary and education efforts, except the intent initially was to annihilate their culture and Anglicize them by forcing Native Americans to cut their hair and punishing them for speaking their own language. Thankfully, that has changed. Today’s curriculum includes respect for their culture and history as well as retaining their native languages. The private schools today are doing penance for the past, which is more than can be said about anyone else.

Pike’s Peak Goldrush Map

Indigenous people in the United States were murdered and those that remained driven off their land, usually to reservations in locations no one else wanted. At least until gold or silver was discovered, in which case they were driven off again. Many today live in conditions comparable to those of a Third World country.

How is this okay?

Consider this: The USA helped Europe defeat the Nazis in World War II. Our troops decimated Germany in the process, but we helped them rebuild. Adolph Hitler was a vile threat and avowed enemy. We bombed the hell out of them.

Then stepped in after the war and helped them recover! And did the same thing for Japan, who attacked our fleet at Pearl Harbor!

Seriously?

Photo by David Mark (Courtesy Pixabay)

Yet, for First Nation people, from whom we literally stole this country, we do little to nothing. Rather, we continue to steal and desecrate their sacred sites, then hover somewhere between ignoring their situation and the typical narcissistic response of placing the blame on them.

“Sorry, guys. You were in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

How would today’s Americans respond to Chinese hoards swarming their borders? How would you respond? Would you welcome them with open arms? Or defend your country by embracing your 2nd Amendment rights?

Columbus should be remembered. The sea voyage alone at that time was incredible. He led the way for Europeans to be free and escape oppression. Ironically, this came with a price that imposed far worse circumstances on the First Americans, when millions were slaughtered and brushed aside as vermin. Columbus belongs in the history books, but the effect his “discovery” had on the First Americans needs to be told and acknowledged (as well as some of his less than stellar personal deeds).

The USA has a long way to go before they quit being defensive and admit this behavior was antithetical to what was supposed to be a Christian nation espousing “liberty and justice for all.” We must balance the history books and acknowledge the darker side. It takes a big person (or country) to admit when they were wrong. It doesn’t change the past, but it could heal the present and certainly the future.

Meanwhile, the least we should do is eschew Columbus in favor of Indigenous People Day.

It’s not much, but it’s a start.

Recommended reading: “Great Speeches by Native Americans” edited by Bob Blaisdell. I suggest you buy it here, from the Southwest Indian Foundation.

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