Monday, October 8, 2007

Indigenous Peoples' Day aka Columbus Day

Indigenous Peoples' Day at City College, CUNY aka Columbus Day, a Federal holiday in the U.S.

Can critically thinking persons of conscience honor Christopher Columbus? Salute his navigational exploits yes, but HONOR him? A few of us instead are observing Indigenous Peoples' Day. I've named it Indigenous Peoples' Day in my thoughts about this day, sent out on an email yesterday to CUNY is Our Future, perhaps others here today will agree that is what we are here today in remembrance of and for future action. How else to work together for Ethical Democracy?

This group, CUNY Is Our Future, has assembled every year for fifteen years at various points on the historic City College campus, the battleground for Open Admissions, a place of hope for Harlem, East Harlem and every place in the city and its boros where hope is needed for a chance at education and a better life for families and communities. Today we are seated, a small group of many colors, awaiting each other's arrival in the broad plaza outside the NAC -- the North Academic Campus and the Guillermo Morales and Assata Shakur Student & Community Center.

I have read on the Web that Russell Means, leader of the American Indian Movement (AIM) has been arrested in Denver for protesting the "convoy of conquest" that the Columbus Day Parade in U.S. towns and cities represents for many of us. Also arrested is Glenn Morris a polisci prof at the University of Denver who directs the All Nations Four Directions Group. Morris describes Columbus in the Democracy Now interview as "a slave trading Indian killer." Denver was the first city in the US to hold a parade in Columbus' honor in 1905. I also bring to the attention of the group an interview with Democracy Now of Means, Morris and Glen Spagnuolo who heads PITCH Progressive Italians Transforming the Columbus Day Holiday .... A movement with which all three are associated is called:
Transform Columbus Day Alliance

They would like groups to join them in ending the celebration of a man who was a slave trader and worse. I try to persuade the group that we become signatories to the Transform Columbus Day movement. I think people here will consider it after reviewing the information about the groups on the web.
One member brings a pamphlet celebrating Harlem artists, quoting words about Sankofa from the Akan. How moving they are, how effective in their simple yet complex power to bring people together in a common humanity. Another speaks of a law class in which he asked students to consider whether Crispus Attucks "was right" in his actions during what has come to be known as the Boston Massacre. A member and long time leader of the CUNY is Our Future lamented he wished he could do more to protect nature and animals, so much in need of our protection and humanity towards them. A member led us in a native American chant while we held hands in solidarity with those who had long been dispossessed by Columbus and his like-minded descendants. I say I am grateful that Columbus went the wrong way and totally missed 'visiting' my ancestors in India. How good a navigator really was he? Unfortunately others like him found my ancestors and began the colonization of our ancestral spaces throughout the Global South.

We are not here to dishonor the Native American and all struggling peoples by romanticizing them and exoticizing their struggle to survive with dignity. There is work to be done in their behalf however small and sporadic that effort may be. A tenuous plan is evolving to breathe new energy and commitment into the Morales/Shakur Center. We will meet again soon.

In remembrance and honor of the dispossessed and a willingness to redress their wrongs through concerted political action, by satyagraha and "by any means necessary". Personally I don't think it is feasible at this time to rescind Columbus Day as a federal holiday. But is possible to engage in critical thinking followed by action about what is is we are celebrating when we honor Christopher Columbus and negate the destruction of indigenous lives and lifeways.

The Offering at San Ildefonso
A pinch of cornmeal tossed into the air as an offering
To the numerous deities of the Tewa
Is a formality that begins the day
And precedes innumerable acts of the commonplace nature

and again:

The Nez Perce began the quest for spiritual attainment almost at infancy.
Before the age of ten,
Either girl or boy of the Nez Perce was instructed
To gain tiwatitmais -- spiritual power, to go to a mountain
Build a fire and tend it so that it never dies.
Observe the progress of the sun as it leaves
And returns to the people
Then start for your home.

Both partly quoted from Portraits from North American Indian Life, Edward S. Curtis, Promontory Press 1972

Fact: Christopher Columbus never set foot in the U.S.!
Italy (Columbus is thought to have been born in Genoa) does not celebrate Columbus Day. Neither does Spain where he lived and where he received his commission to sail the Atlantic, from Queen Isabella .
Colorado was the first state to formally observe a Columbus Day in 1905. Columbus Day, as event, was 'constructed' by Italian-Americans in New York and first celebrated by them in 1866
Franklin Roosevelt in 1937 decreed every October 12 to be Columbus day. Since 1971 it has been observed on the second Monday of October.
A fristhand eyewitness account of the atrocities perpetrated by Columbus was written by a Dominican priest by the name of Bartoleme de Las Casas based on a survey he purportedly conducted in 1496.

Christopher Columbus is one of many tens of thousands of intrepid land and seafarers over the ages most of whose names we will never know, who sailed the oceans and trekked over thousands of miles. We will never know their names nor read first hand the navigational exploits of the astoundingly skilled Micronesian navigators in the Pacific, those who trudged across the Bering Strait from Asia, the indigenous peoples of the Americas and the Caribbean and Africa who made landfall by various means all across the Americas.

And now the "Age of Discovery" or alternately the "Age of Exploration" has taken an early 21st century turn -- examining Columbus' DNA, see NYTimes link:

Chithra KarunaKaran

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