Sunday, February 04, 2007

Doing Away With Columbus Day

It is not news to any of you who have been following the work of Colorado AIM, that we have called for an end to Columbus Day as a state and national holiday for years. In our pursuit of this strategy, we have been criticized from forces at every point on the political spectrum. We have been instructed to "work on real issues that affect Indian people," "stop living in the past," "stop worrying about a meaningless holiday," " try sobering up your people."

Why have we spent so much time and energy on this issue? Because we know that every single problem, and every racist act or policy that is experienced by indigenous peoples today, has a root. The problems that we face -- poverty, denial of religious freedom, the Cobell trust fund case, violence and substance abuse, the robbing of our territories and natural resources -- are rooted in a consistent and systemic process of racism. Columbus Day is not a harmless or meaningless holiday. It is a deliberate and ongoing celebration of the invasion of our homeland, and championing the victory of European, Christian civilization over our "heathen, backward, primitive savagism."

Many proponents of the Columbus holiday like to pretend that the phrase "Columbus discovered America," is a casual reference to Columbus being the first European, or at least Iberian, to arrive in the Americas. Oh, if it were so simple. "Discovery" has a specific legal and political meaning that is embodied in U.S. law. In the 1823 case of Johnson v. M'Intosh, the U.S. Supreme Court constructed upon Columbus' genocide in the Caribbean by asserting that European "discovery" gave Christian Europeans a superior right to decide the future of our peoples and our homelands. Columbus Day celebrates and extends that the very real legal "doctrine of discovery" -- the foundation of ALL federal Indian law.

If we do not attack and dismantle Columbus Day, and the racist, anti-Indian philosophy that underlies it, we can never hope to be free people again. If we cannot get rid of a state and national holiday that creates a national hero out of a slave-trading Indian-killer, if we cannot abolish a holiday that celebrates the "doctrine of discovery" and the loss of 2 billion acres of our homelands, how can we kid ourselves that we will be able to address any of the other problems that surround us as Native people?

We have an opportunity to begin dismantling the destructive processes that Columbus Day celebrates. Colorado is the birthplace of Columbus Day. 2007 is the 100th anniversary of the holiday. One hundred years of racism in Colorado is enough. Colorado State Senator Suzanne Williams ( is proposing the repeal of Columbus Day. She is being opposed in her attempt by Democrats and Republicans, alike. She needs your support and your encouragement. Colorado Governor Bill Ritter also needs to hear from you about why Columbus Day needs to be repealed. His email is: Some points for emphasis in your communication may be found in the column below. The column was written by one of our members, and was recently published in the Rocky Mountain News. It does not matter if you are from Colorado, if you are Native or not, we all have the right to stand against racism wherever it appears -- please write/call your support for abolishing Columbus Day.

Time has come to repeal Columbus Day
By Glenn Morris

Colorado state Sen. Suzanne Williams has proposed the repeal of Columbus Day as a state holiday in Colorado. One of her proposals is to replace Columbus Day with a floating or flex holiday for state employees. Another proposal is to designate All Nations Day — to honor the contribution of all peoples and nations in the construction of America. Neither suggestion carries any negative fiscal impact for the state.

Williams is to be applauded for her moral leadership, and for her forthright stance; she should be supported by her colleagues in the state Senate and House, and by Gov. Bill Ritter. State-sanctioned holidays that portray Christopher Columbus as an honorable man who “discovered” America are untruthful.

Prior to his arrival in the Caribbean, Columbus engaged in the African slave trade for the Portuguese. That alone should disqualify him for state or national hero status. While he was governor of the Caribbean, Columbus began and administered a system of forced labor camps known as encomiendas or repartimientos. Under this system, hundreds of thousands of indigenous people were literally worked to death.

Even historian Samuel Eliot Morrison, a Columbus fan, was forced to conclude that “the policy and acts of Columbus for which he alone was responsible began the depopulation of the terrestrial paradise that was Hispaniola in 1492.” According to Morrison, one-third of the Indian population was killed in less than four years. Surely, we no longer want a state holiday to a man who began and advanced genocide.

Some suggest that Columbus was simply a man of his times, and that whatever his crimes, well, “everyone was doing it.” This assertion reflects a profound ignorance of the courageous voices of Columbus’ contemporaries who condemned the atrocities of Columbus and his subordinates in their own era. Scholars and theologians like Antonio de Montesinos, Bartolome de Las Casas, Matias de Paz, and Franciscus de Victoria — considered by many to be the father of modern international law — opposed the destruction that was begun and advanced by Columbus. Today, we should do no less. Even if the apologists were correct, however, and Columbus simply went along with the prevailing practices of his own society, engaging in invasion, murder, rape and plunder, we should not now reward that example with a state holiday.

Most people do not know that Columbus Day began as a state and national holiday in Colorado 100 years ago this year. On April 1, 1907, Gov. Henry Buchtel made Colorado the first state to designate an official holiday to Christopher Columbus. The obvious question is: Why?

Why would landlocked Colorado, more than 2,000 miles removed from any area ever visited by Columbus, honor this lost sailor with a state holiday?

The notion that Colorado was honoring Italians with the holiday is absurd in light of the lynchings and the rampant discrimination that were being visited on Italians in Colorado and across the United States.

ColumbusÂ’ story was manipulated in the 19th and early 20th centuries by U.S. political leaders who cared nothing about Italians or American Indians, but who needed a poster boy to support their policies of expansionism and militarism. Columbus Day, which has only become more tattered and divisive over time, has outlived whatever shallow, pseudo-patriotic usefulness it might have once served.

We have a chance in Colorado, the birthplace of Columbus Day, to set an example for our children, for our schools, for the country. We can set an example for future generations that says that advancing mutual respect and understanding is more important than jealously guarding the well-worn but indefensible, hurtful fallacies of the past. We can support WilliamsÂ’ initiative, and finally repeal Columbus Day in Colorado.

Glenn Morris is a member of the Leadership Council of the American Indian Movement of Colorado.