“In fourteen hundred and ninety-two
Columbus sailed the ocean blue.”
Do you remember reciting this verse in elementary school when preparing to celebrate Columbus Day? In two-line rhyming stanzas we learned about his voyage from Spain with three ships and ninety sailors to what he thought would be India. It mentions encountering the “Arawak natives” and concludes with “The first American? No, not quite. But Columbus was brave, and he was bright.” For the quincentennial of his “discovery,” Nancy Schimmel wrote a different song for children – “1492” (http://www.sisterschoice.com/1492.mp3) – with the refrain “someone was already there.”
Indeed someone was! The benign poem I learned didn’t mention the nations of indigenous peoples living in the Americas for millennia before the European invasion. It neither told their stories nor sang their praises. It taught us a myth and hid the devastating truth from us.
In North America alone, between 1776 and the present, our government seized an estimated 1.5 billion acres from Native peoples. Claudio Saunt, associate director of the Institute of Native American Studies at the University of Georgia, created an interactive time-lapse map that can be viewed at http://invasionofamerica.ehistory.org/, to visualize this dispossession. In 1848, gold was discovered in California’s Central Valley, and three years later, in his State of the State address, governor Peter Burnett said, “That a war of extermination will continue to be waged between the races, until the Indian race becomes extinct, must be expected.” For more than a century (1860-1978), Native children were ripped from their families and sent to boarding schools far from their homes. Between 1947 and 2000, an estimated 40,000 children from 60 tribes were placed in Mormon homes.
Many Americans have heard about the Trail of Tears and Wounded Knee, but a vast majority know little about the extent of the atrocities committed against our hosts. It is high time we learned. It is time for a reckoning about the U.S. conquest of sovereign indigenous nations and a serious engagement with people who lost their homelands and future generations of children. Some progress has been made in the truthful teaching of our history and filing of lawsuits to reclaim land, but it is an arduous struggle.
Today we have an opportunity to support Native Americans taking a stand to stop construction of the proposed $3.8 billion Dakota Access pipeline, from North Dakota to Illinois, that threatens to contaminate the Missouri River. Thousands of indigenous activists from dozens of tribes across the country have traveled to the Sacred Stone Spirit Camp (http://sacredstonecamp.org/) launched on April 1 by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe to protest this violation of the National Historic Preservation Act. A delegation from Black Lives Matters also participated. Many of us joined a rally in Washington Square Park last month (September 9) and continue to support the tribe’s efforts.
News of this protest and the lawsuits filed by the tribe has been slow reaching the general public. It was carried primarily by the daily independent news program Democracy Now! and through social media. Yet again, it is evident that mainstream news media care little about Native Americans. One notable exception was Lawrence O’Donnell of MSNBC at the end of the August 25th edition of his nightly news show, “The Last Word.” Here is a quotation:
“The original sin of this country is that we invaders shot and murdered our way across the land killing every Native American we could, and making treaties with the rest. This country was founded on genocide before the word genocide was invented, before there was a war crimes tribunal in The Hague. . . [Standing Rock reminds us of] The people who have always known what is truly sacred in this world.”
So this Columbus Day weekend, please make time to consider our country from a different perspective. Imagine what might have been had the European invaders respected the cultures and valued the lives of the people who preceded them. We have much to learn.