For the Indigenous Nations of the Western Hemisphere "Columbus Day" is a day of mourning. The year 1492 is an abomination. But, October 12 arrives every year to torture the open sore of genocide, not as a reflective day of mourning and solidarity with Indigenous Peoples, as it should be. It is celebrated with gusto throughout the Americas, but no place as enthusiastically as the United States, where it is one of the ten official federal holidays when all federal offices and banks are closed. Columbus Day parades and fireworks are the main fare in towns and cities throughout the country. Counterintuitively, in the liberal city of San Francisco where I live it is the occasion of the gathering of U.S. warships and two days of low aerial strafing by war planes (the Blue Angels), a whole week of mass participation in martial events and patriotic gore called Fleet Week. The only good thing about the Sequester is that Fleet Week has been canceled this year.
The nearly two centuries formation of the thirteen British North American colonies did not disappear with the bloody war of independence that created the United Sates. On the contrary, the continuation and expansion of settler colonialism/genocide and plantation slavery were the primary motives for separation. The first seventy years of the new “empire of liberty,” as Thomas Jefferson called the U.S., was devoted to genocidal wars against the Native agricultural nations east of the Mississippi, seizure of their lands, and forced mass removal of the citizens of those nations to Indian Territory (future Oklahoma). The appropriated land in the South was used for expansion of the slave-worked planation economy, while land in the Ohio Valley and Great Lakes area was used as the bait to entice European settlers—one-way transport, tools, and “free” land. The Columbus myth of the right to discovery transmuted into “manifest destiny,” and territories west of the Mississippi were taken through war and genocide during the second half of the 1800s. This then is the genealogy of all of us who live in the U.S. and of its institutions and its relations with the rest of humanity (the other 94 percent of the world's population).
But, that is not the whole story, because Native nations, through their resistance to U.S. colonization, survived, have land bases and governments and languages and demand the return of all lands not transferred through legitimate treaties.
I have completed a book on this genealogy, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, which will be published by Beacon Press next year. In it, I trace the U.S. origin story to the Columbus myth. Origin narratives form the vital core of a people's unifying identity and of the values that guide them. In the U.S., the specific narrative of the founding and development of the Anglo-American settler-state was envisaged by the Puritan settlers as a covenant with God to take the land; that part of the origin story takes on legal color based on the Columbus myth and the "Doctrine of Discovery." According to the fifteenth century doctrine pronounced by the Pope, European nations acquired title to the lands they “discovered,” and the Indigenous inhabitants lost their natural right to that land now that the Europeans had arrived and claimed it.
The celebrations of Columbus suggest that from U.S. independence onward, colonial settlers saw and still see themselves as part of a world system of colonization. “Columbia” is based on the name Columbus (Colombo in his native Italian), rendering its Latin form, Columbia, as the “Land of Columbus.” It was a poetic name used referring to the United States from its founding throughout the nineteenth century and was represented by a female persona that can be found in sculptures, paintings, and place names, such as the national capitol, the District of Columbia, Columbia University, and the names of dozens of towns with many more by the name of Columbus. The 1798 hymn, "Hail, Columbia," was the early national anthem of the U.S., now used for the entry of the Vice-President of the United States.
And, of course, the nearest Monday to October 12 is an official federal holiday celebrating Columbus, thereby attempting to validate the discredited Doctrine of Discovery. The devoted celebration of Columbus in the United States gives food for thought since Columbus never came near touching any piece of land or water that has ever or is currently occupied by the United States. Arcane as it may seem, the medieval “Doctrine of Discovery” remains the basis for federal laws still in effect that control Indigenous Peoples lives and destinies, even their histories, maintaining a colonial hold. Most importantly, it controls the world view and behavior of the U.S. government and its citizens.
How about a movement to abolish Columbus Day and bury the Doctrine of Discovery?
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz is an historian, university professor, co-founder of Indigenous World Association, which lobbies the United Nations on behalf of indigenous peoples’ rights, and author of a number of books and articles on indigenous peoples of the Americas, most recently, Roots of Resistance: A History of Land Tenure in New Mexico. Her book An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States will be published by Beacon Press next year.
Editor's Note: Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz's forthcoming An Indigenous People's History of the United States (September 2014) is classic Beacon "bottom up" history. It's the third book in "ReVisioning American History," a series that questions, challenges, and ultimately changes how we think of our past. A Queer History of the United States, by veteran LGBT scholar and activist Michael Bronski was the first book in the series, followed by A Disability History of the United States by prominent disability historian Kim Nielsen.
Executive Editor Gayatri Patnaik had known of Dunbar-Ortiz's legendary past, had read her memoirs, Outlaw Woman and Red Dirt, and was aware of the author's vital personal connection to indigenous history, as well as her immense knowledge of it. She noted, "Dunbar-Ortiz writes with extraordinary clarity in this groundbreaking history...and her blog for 'Columbus Day' gives a sense of the revolutionary power you can expect from An Indigenous People's History of the United States."