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.