Reclaiming Columbus Day for Social Justice!

I wrote this post for the Ramapo College Women’s Center blog but I wanted to share it here too!

For most people today is Columbus Day, but not for me. After reading about the atrocities committed by Columbus and his men in James Lowen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me I can no longer acknowledge the day in good conscience.

Despite my lack of aptitude when it comes to history, for the past ten years or so I have had some awareness of the fact that Columbus Day was a really crummy holiday. I mean, thinking about it logically it is easy to understand that Columbus didn’t discover anything, he simply took over a patch of land that was already inhabited by various groups of people. With this understanding I spent many years ambivalent, not thrilled about the reasoning behind the holiday but enjoying my day off all the same. Now, however, I am outraged. This excerpt from a post on commondreams.org is lengthy, but it sums up the horrible history behind Columbus’ expedition to the “New World” very well. It is a history that I, like many of my peers, was woefully unaware of until just a few weeks ago.

“If you fly over the country of Haiti on the island of Hispaniola, the island on which Columbus landed, it looks like somebody took a blowtorch and burned away anything green. Even the ocean around the port capital of Port au Prince is choked for miles with the brown of human sewage and eroded topsoil. From the air, it looks like a lava flow spilling out into the sea. The history of this small island is, in many ways, a microcosm for what’s happening in the whole world. When Columbus first landed on Hispaniola in 1492, virtually the entire island was covered by lush forest. The Taino “Indians” who loved there had an apparently idyllic life prior to Columbus, from the reports left to us by literate members of Columbus’s crew such as Miguel Cuneo. When Columbus and his crew arrived on their second visit to Hispaniola, however, they took captive about two thousand local villagers who had come out to greet them. Cuneo wrote: “When our caravels were to leave for Spain, we gathered one thousand six hundred male and female persons of those Indians, and these we embarked in our caravels on February 17, 1495. For those who remained, we let it be known (to the Spaniards who manned the island’s fort) in the vicinity that anyone who wanted to take some of them could do so, to the amount desired, which was done.” Cuneo further notes that he himself took a beautiful teenage Carib girl as his personal slave, a gift from Columbus himself, but that when he attempted to have sex with her, she “resisted with all her strength.” So, in his own words, he “thrashed her mercilessly and raped her.” While Columbus once referred to the Taino Indians as cannibals, a story made up by Columbus – which is to this day still taught in some US schools – to help justify his slaughter and enslavement of these people. He wrote to the Spanish monarchs in 1493: “It is possible, with the name of the Holy Trinity, to sell all the slaves which it is possible to sell Here there are so many of these slaves, and also brazilwood, that although they are living things they are as good as gold.” Columbus and his men also used the Taino as sex slaves: it was a common reward for Columbus’ men for him to present them with local women to rape. As he began exporting Taino as slaves to other parts of the world, the sex-slave trade became an important part of the business, as Columbus wrote to a friend in 1500: “A hundred castellanoes (a Spanish coin) are as easily obtained for a woman as for a farm, and it is very general and there are plenty of dealers who go about looking for girls; those from nine to ten (years old) are now in demand.”

In order to draw attention to the controversy over this “holiday” at Ramapo Professor Gorewitz planned a “campus takeover to appreciate Native Americans.” This is the schedule for the day:

9:45 – Gathering
10:00 – Greetings from representatives of the Ojibwa and Lenape Communities
10:15 to 11:30 – Trudell by Heather Rae
11:30 to 1:00 – Powwow Highway, directed by Jonathan Wacks
1:00 to 2:00 – Drum Circle
2:00 to 3:30 – Smoke Signals, directed by Chris Eyre
4:00 to 6:00 – The Business of Fancy Dancing, written and directed by Sherman Alexie

I’m in class and meetings for most of the day, but I did manage to jump back and forth between Ramapo Coming Out Day (more about that in another post) and the Drum Circle! The drum circle was lead by a Native American man* who spoke for awhile about the significance of the various instruments before leading the circle in a beat for a little while. * [Because I came in late, I missed where exactly he was from but we should all be aware that “Native American culture” is not a monolithic thing. Someone I spoke to told me the man was from Wisconsin, so I suspect he is Ojibwa based on the program and the fact that there is an Ojibwa reservation in Wisconsin. ]

In addition to the film festival, there has also been a petition going around to change Ramapo’s name for the day to it’s Native American spelling, Ramapough. This is the part of the event that resonates with me most, since so few people on this campus realize that there is a Native American tripe, the Ramapough Lenape people, living not twenty minutes from Ramapo’s campus. Even fewer people realize that the Ramapough Lenape people’s health and livlihood has been compromised for years now, at the hands of Ford Motors:

In 1983, the Ramapough homeland was declared an EPA-monitored Superfund site by the federal government. After 7,000 cubic yards and 727 tons of paint sludge and 61 drums of toxic waste was removed from the Upper Ringwood, New Jersey site from 1987 to 1990, and in 1994, the EPA delisted the site and declared it safe. In 2006, after many complaints by the Ramapough, Upper Ringwood was the first site in history re-declared a Superfund site and today the EPA admits that 80 percent of the toxins were missed in the original cleanup.

I didn’t know about any of this until a few weeks ago, when I stumbled upon an article online. This is astounding to me, since the impact this event has had on the community is so powerful:

One area in particular is known as “Cancer Row.” Every house here has been visited by cancer and in many cases, by The Grim Reaper. No individual lives into his or her 70s in this area, which, prior to Ford’s presence, supported a healthy population of elderly people. Children, adolescents, and adults are routinely diagnosed with multiple cancers; many have died as a result. Those who are still on this Earth are not exempt from a myriad of other health issues, including but not limited to gall stones the size of which seasoned medical professionals have never before seen, skin ailments requiring surgical excising of large areas of one’s skin, and unexplained bleeding from the throat, eyes, ears, and mouth. Stumped, local doctors advised one 29-year-old woman that she suffered from lupus and all manner of other diseases; all were incorrect diagnoses. Finally diagnosed properly by healthcare professionals in New York City, the woman learned that she suffers from heavy metal poisoning.  A newlywed, she was also counseled not to try to conceive, as “it won’t live.”

Things like this are allowed to happen, largely, because so many of us are ignorant. In many mainstream public school systems we are taught to see Native American culture and people as something that died out “a long time ago.” The evidence of this is all over our culture: from “Indian Princess” Halloween Costumes, to movies like Pocahontas that vastly misrepresent the story of a real Native American girl, to “Tribal” trends in clothing stores… our culture treats Native American people, a CURRENTLY oppressed group, as some sort of mythical historical figure. In doing this we ignore the reality: Like the fact that there are many, very different groups of Native American people; or the fact that Native American women are at least 2.5 times more likely to be sexually assaulted in their lifetimes than other women in the United States (and at least 86 percent of reported rapes or other sexual assaults against Indigenous women are committed by non-Indigenous men); or the fact that an entire race op people (The Ramapough Lenapes) are being harmed by toxic chemicals that an American company put into their land. We do this because it is easy: after all, buying into Disney’s version of Pocahontas’ life feels much better than acknowledging the reality. Seeing Columbus as a hero who discovered the earth was round (nope) feels better than acknowledging the America we know was founded on a history of rape and subjugation. We do this because he people in power want to keep us ignorant: After all, acknowledging the injustices STILL being commuted against Native American people means that we actually have to do something about it… and doing something likely means inconveniencing major companies and uncovering a great deal of corruption. We don’t have to do this anymore. This injustice started with Columbus, but it can end with us... what are you going to do to help?

FURTHER READING:
I Am Not a Mascot – “My name is Simon Moya-Smith. I’m an Oglala Lakota Sioux. In this blog you will read the adventures and musings of a contemporary First Nation journalist living in a society that, well, just doesn’t get it. Far too many American Indian issues are swept under the rug. I am a rug lifter. “
Native Appropriations – “Native Appropriations is a forum for discussing the use of Indigenous cultures, traditions, languages, and images in popular culture, advertising, and everyday life.”
My Culture is Not a Trend – “This blog is devoted to calling out those who might think that it is fun to dress like a native for a photo-shoot, or what have you. Just because it’s popular, doesn’t make it right, and to me, it is just as offensive as blackface. “
Native Youth Sexual Health Network – “The Native Youth Sexual Health Network (NYSHN) is a North-America wide organization working on issues of healthy sexuality, cultural competency, youth empowerment, reproductive justice, and sex positivity by and for Native youth.”
Please share any additional links or information you have in the comments!

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