Indigenous People's Day
But the old history that proposes that Columbus "discovered" America in 1492 has been widely challenged. In 1992, Berkeley, California renamed the holiday Indigenous People's Day, and other localities have subsequently followed suit. In much of Latin America the date of Columbus's arrival is commemorated as Dia de la Raza.
In the log that Columbus kept during his voyage, he described how the friendly Taino Indians who greeted his ships: "would make fine servants... With 50 men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want."
Searching for gold, Columbus reported that "As soon as I arrived in the Indies, on the first island which I found, I took some natives by force in order that they might learn and might give me information of whatever there is in these parts."
Though they found little gold, he took many Indian prisoners back to Europe, though most died on the way. In subsequent voyages, more of the Arawak people were enslaved, killed, sent back to Spain, and forced to harvest gold. Columbus' men ordered everyone over age 13 in one island province to bring in a quota of gold; Indians who failed to meet the quota had their hands cut off and were left to bleed to death.
This war against the native population included hangings and burnings. Mass suicides followed. Virtually all of the Taino were dead within two generations.
Writing in the early 1500s, Bartolomeo de Las Casas describes Spaniards -- driven by "insatiable greed" -- "killing, terrorizing, afflicting, and torturing the native peoples" with what he called "the strangest and most varied new methods of cruelty." The Spaniards "thought nothing of knifing Indians by tens and twenties and of cutting slices off them to test the sharpness of their blades," wrote Las Casas. "My eyes have seen these acts so foreign to human nature, and now I tremble as I write."
But these facts, and the critique of Columbus and his legacy that follows from them, has been only unevenly incorporated in standard textbooks on American history.
As Bill Bigelow of Rethinkng Schools has noted, recent "textbook treatments of Columbus fail to urge students to consider how Europe incorporated the Americas into a world system that was exploitative and unequal, or to encourage students to inquire how these patterns of exploitation have helped to determine the world we live in today.
Eliot Sperber points out that Columbus immediately imposed the Order of the old world upon the one he invaded. The law of force (articulated in the European legal tradition’s Doctrine of Conquest, which grants invaders legal title to the lands they conquer) was subsequently imposed throughout the Americas and beyond. Though this doctrine was formally abolished by the UN in 1974, insofar as it continues to determine the distribution of the planet’s resources, the right of conquest in many respects continues to determine the course of our lives. And while it is crucial to remember the atrocities that Columbus and his successors committed throughout the world during the so-called Age of Discovery, it is equally important to recognize the fact that, though its forms may have changed, the underlying Order that Columbus initiated (with all of its violent implications) continues to operate in politics, economics, and law – that is, systemically – throughout the world today.
As Bigelow puts it,"In 1492, Columbus wrote, “Considering the beauty of the land, it could not but be that there was gain to be got.” Treating everything from trees to water to human beings as exploitable commodities where “gain was to be got,” was Columbus’s gift to the world. It’s a gift that keeps on giving."
As Terri Hansen has reported on Indian Country Today Media Network, "Colonization and the corporate mentality that grew out of it have been ravaging Indian country for centuries. But since the 1800s, increased industrialization have stepped up the scale of destruction to Mother Earth. From the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, to the PCBs left at the General Electric federal Superfund site in Mohawk territory, industry has been as hard on the environment as it has on Indian country."
But indigenous peoples are in the forefront of today's battles to reclaim and protect the natural world and the health of the planet.
The group Idle No More is perhaps the best known of the indigenous-led groups fighting to save the planet.
As reported on KBOO and elsewhere, Idle No More has been active since the Canadian government began pushing through a bill that undermines what little Native land rights had continued to be recognized.
In the past few weeks, First Nations groups in Canada have set up a blockade to stop shale-gas exploration in New Brunswick, marched outside the Ontario premier's house to protest high mercury levels, forced a coal-mining company in British Columbia to delay exploratory drilling, and have called attention to the impact of Hydroelectric Projects on Sea Ice.
Similarly, in the US, the group Honor the Earth, co-founded by Winona LaDuke, has been working to "Keep fossil fuels in the sacred ground, and protect our water through opposing the coal expansions, nuclear reboot, fracking expansions and pipeline expansions in our territories."
This past week, the North Dakota oil spill that was kept secret for ten days has gotten attention from La Duke and the Oglala riders whose Pine Ridge reservation is not far south of the spill. Activists are patrolling part of the proposed KXL pipeline route, protesting dirty oil.
Groups like Redoil and The Indigenous Environmental Network are also active against a carbon offset program the California government looks poised to approve, according to which California would use forests in Mesoamerica, the Amazon, Africa, and other “partner jurisdictions” with tropical forests as “sponges” for the carbon pollution of companies such as Chevron and Shell. This plan would thus allow these industries to avoid reducing their polluting emissions.
Native Indians continue to face serious threats to their basic existence today because of government policies that allow mining and energy-extraction corporations to pollute their water and land and steal their resources.
But in light of the recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, we all have plenty of reason to decry Columbus's legacy of "treating everything from trees to water to human beings as exploitable commodities where “gain was to be got."