‘Discovering’ the Americas was strictly a Euro-centric notion. To the people already living there on Turtle Island, as it is known to some, it was the land they knew and loved as if she were a mother, and they lived within the sacred circle of her embrace. Columbus thought what he had discovered was the western side of India. Hence the locals were “indios”–Indians. How did the indigenous people feel about being discovered? Do contemporary indigenous people celebrate Columbus Day?
Canada, the country where I grew up, does not observe Columbus Day. The city of Berkeley, California, as many other places do, recognizes it as Indigenous Peoples Day. Venezuela recognizes it as Indigenous Peoples Resistance day. Other Latin American countries call it Dia de la Raza, Day of the Race, to respect the culture of indigenous populations.
It is true American Indians are angry about Columbus and “his day.” Some will probably even wear black armbands on October 8th as if attending a funeral. In the 70s, the American Indian poets of the Bay Area gathered together to share their rage in their poems. This was the era immediately following the failed attempts to secure the Alcatraz facility after a year and a half long occupation (1969 – 1971), and the battle at Wounded Knee of 1973.
The anger is a “fact.” It is also based on deep and meaningful issues. However, we should consider the question: is their “value” in the anger?
When I arrived on the scene later, as a poet writing about American Indian issues in the 2000s, the anger had worn itself out somewhat. But one day a couple of years ago, I met an American Indian poet who had a writing group in San Francisco. I asked if I could participate and he asked me in return, “Do you write radical revolutionary poetry?” I had to confess, “Only a little.” I have written a few angry poems, but I mainly favor poems that speak of our common humanity, and that strive toward the ideal of brotherhood between peoples.
Another irony about Columbus Day is that it was first proposed as a means of counteracting anti-immigrant prejudice coming from “nativist” (American-born) groups in the mid 1800s when so many Catholic immigrants were coming to America. It was not officially observed until FDR made it a holiday in 1937 at the urging of the Italian-American group, the Knights of Columbus.
A Clash of Cultures
Currently Columbus Day has become despised by some as representing a time when colonial powers dominated and brutalized those they colonized. We can briefly enumerate what happened when Columbus put Turtle Island on the map of the world under a different name:
• There were military attacks on indigenous people and brutal suppression of revolts
• Atrocities were committed. Columbus himself severed the hands of indigenous tribes-people who didn’t pay the required tribute of gold
• The expropriation of land led to the destruction of ancient ways of life
• Artisan and craft-based economies were crushed with the Western concept of industrialism.
Cultural disaster was the result. The Indian views the European/Western formative capitalist idea as criminal, whereas to Westerners it is the received wisdom of an ancient wise elder named Adam Smith who taught us this was the right way to do business.
The concept of Dominion appears to be the central core issue underlying the conflict between these two races (European/Western/Caucasian and the American indigenous Native Peoples). Dominion was used to justify domination over indigenous races.
We have to use the term “race” loosely here, and mostly in a historical sense, because in our modern time there is so much racial variation between groups. We are already on shaky ground to divide each other off by race.
Where does this formative idea of Dominion come from? The idea that has become so controversial is in the Bible, Genesis 1:26: “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over all the earth …’”
Can we Have a Moral Economic Philosophy?
Both colonialist and colonized groups exploit natural resources. In a sense, both Indians and white people exercise “dominion over all the earth.” But the attitudes and approaches towards nature are quite different, perhaps not to do with race in any genetic sense, but based on differing cultural achievements. It can be said that American Indians have a stronger inclination to look to the collective welfare of the community and not elevate the position of the individual. Indian cultures are not so inclined to extract the wealth of Mother Earth’s natural resources only to elevate the wealth and position of whoever was clever enough to have figured out how to do it.
Indians were (and still are) very uncomfortable with the Western notions of individualism, and “free market capitalism.” I think this discomfort persists even though many Indians are now assimilated into modern capitalist society. To them it is an immoral act to tear out the heart of the mother when it is not done to benefit the whole community, or if it provides only a transient benefit without making provision for the children of the future. Often these reactions are not even consciously held intellectual ideas. These moral judgments are intuitive, something engrained.
I often wish the American Indian and their white conquerors could have met half way, a foolish wish that could never have happened, an ideal doomed from the get go. But in an ideal world, if American Indian philosophy and spirituality could have somehow earned the respect of the colonial powers, these Europeans might have learned something from the Indian.
Especially in terms of the “dominion over the earth” concept, we might have determined it the better part of wisdom to place our natural resources into a trust, part of the national treasury, allotting the income from such assets to be used for the benefit of the national community. This natural ecological approach to resources might have saved us from some of the environmental problems we face today, and still could if our societies could adopt such ideas.
(Presented at the San Rafael Salon for Artists by Dave Holt on October 8, 2012)