“Our nation was born in genocide. . . . We are perhaps the only nation which tried as a matter of national policy to wipe out its indigenous population. Moreover, we elevated that tragic experience into a noble crusade. . .” —Martin Luther King, Jr.
Dear President Obama:
“Columbus Day” was made a federal holiday in 1934, when Native American nations and communities had little voice to protest the celebration of the onset of colonization and genocide in the Western Hemisphere. In the era of global decolonization of the second half of the 20th century, Native Americans remained colonized. Columbus Day is a metaphor and painful symbol of that traumatic past, although the United States did not become an independent republic until nearly three centuries after Columbus’s first voyage. None of Columbus’s voyages touched the continental territory now claimed by the US. Yet, the United States soon affirmed that a 15th century Papal Bull, known as the “Doctrine of Discovery,” applied to the Indigenous nations of North America. This remains US law in claiming that Native nations are “domestic, dependent nations” with no inherent rights to the land.
In a 2009 interview with Al Arabiya Television in Dubai, soon after your first inauguration, you affirmed that your government could be an honest broker in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, saying, “We sometimes make mistakes. We have not been perfect. But if you look at the track record, as you say, America was not born as a colonial power.” One has to query, Mr. President, how did the United States begin with 13 small colonies/states hugging the Atlantic seaboard and end as 50 states if not by colonization?
The affirmation of democracy requires the denial of colonialism, but denying it does not make it go away. Only decolonization can do that.
Native American nations and communities are involved in decolonization projects, including the development of international human rights law to gain their rights as Indigenous Peoples, having gained the United Nations’ Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which your administration endorsed. It’s time for the United States government to make a gesture toward acknowledgement of its colonial past and a commitment to decolonization. Doing away with the celebration of Columbus, the very face of European colonialism, could be that gesture. In its place proclaim that fateful date of the onset of colonialism as a Day of Solidarity and Mourning with the Indigenous Peoples.
Professor Dunbar-Ortiz has been active in the international Indigenous movement for more than four decades, and is author or editor of seven books including the recently published An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States.