Political Matters: Indigenous Peoples Day in Minneapolis

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"In Fourteen Hundred and Ninety Two,

Columbus sailed the ocean blue.

But everything else in the childhood

rhyme,

Ignores the historic details and

genocide."

— From “Fourteen Hundred Ninety-Two

(The Rewrite),” by Dana W. Hall

Where should we start? In 1492,

Cristoforo Colombo, an explorer from the Republic of Genoa (now part

of Italy), sailing under the flag of the Crown of Castile (now

Spain), set off to find the fastest route to the gold and spices of

the Orient. He set off westward in the Atlantic Ocean, and ended up

in the Caribbean, quite a long way from East Asia.

On his first voyage, Christopher

Columbus, who was wrong in nearly all of his geographic suppositions,

came ashore on an island in the present day Commonwealth of the

Bahamas. Historians are not sure of which island in the Bahamas

corresponds to the island that the Italian explorer called San

Salvador.

Columbus encountered the people living

on this island — known as Lucayan, Taino or Arawak – and found

them to be peaceful and hospitable. They wore gold earrings and

Columbus took some of the Arawaks as prisoners, demanding that they

show him where they got the gold. Columbus – who made four

round-trip voyages between Spain and the Americas and never stepped

on the North American continent – set the pattern of European

colonialism in the “New World.”

Let’s jump ahead 500 years, to 1992,

and the “National Columbus Quincentennial” celebration, the

official festivities marking the explorer’s first voyage of

“discovery.” President George H.W. Bush and the U.S. Congress

established something called the Christopher Columbus Quincentenary

Jubilee Commission to coordinate the official events in the U.S.

In Minneapolis, I got involved with

something called the Circles of 500 Quincentennial Fall Festival and

Pageant, an alternative community celebration coordinated by In the

Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre. Specifically, I was hired

as editor of the Circles of 500 magazine. The other day I found a box

of files containing my research into Columbus – the history, the

official Columbus celebration and the myriad counterpoint efforts

around the world. American Indian organizations, church groups with

Indian ministries, the American Library Association and other outfits

published reams of pamphlets and study guides to rectify the

historical record.

The Science Museum of Minnesota hosted

a Columbus exhibit, which included a two-thirds size replica of the

Nina, a smaller ship that sailed from Spain in 1492. On May 29, 1992,

American Indian Movement (AIM) leader Vernon Bellecourt greeted the

“First Encounters” exhibit by splattering a pint of blood on the

replica ship’s sail and deck. Then he threw the Columbus mannequin

overboard. “This is symbolic of the blood spilled by Indian

people,” he explained.

I miss Vernon.

Also in 1992, the newspaper I edit and

publish, the American Jewish World, reported that Hillel at the U of

M and the American Indian Student Cultural Center joined in an event

marking the Columbus voyage, which led to the “virtual annihilation

of the Native American population,” and the expulsion of the Jews

from Spain in 1492 (this was part of a Christian religious initiative

known as the Spanish Inquisition).

I mention these events to show that

there have been 20-plus years of activism preceding the April 25

resolution, by the Minneapolis mayor and City Council, recognizing

the second Monday in October as Indigenous Peoples Day.

The City Council chambers were packed

when council member Alondra Cano read the resolution, which also

encourages the city’s efforts to “promote the well-being and

growth” of the local “American Indian and Indigenous community.”

There were some brief speeches by

Minneapolis Indian leaders and council members. I’ll just mention

that Blong Yang, a new member of the City Council, thoughtfully

observed that the official resolution “doesn’t replace Columbus

Day, it adds another group of folks to be recognized on the same

day.”

The elected official was referring to

the federal Columbus Day holiday, which was established in 1937.

After the passage of the resolution, I asked U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison

what he could do on the national level, vis-à-vis Columbus Day.

“We’re going to start researching

it and figure out how we can replicate the good work of the

Minneapolis City Council,” said Ellison, as he walked to the

elevator in City Hall. “We just started thinking about it today –

probably should have thought about it long ago.”

Ellison mentioned that there’s a

Congressional Native American Caucus (co-chaired by Rep. Betty

McCollum, from Minnesota’s Fourth District). “We’re going to

begin this vital conversation. Even this resolution passed today

began because some people said, ‘Hey, we should do this.’ So,

today we’ve been inspired to say, ‘What should we be doing on the

federal level?’ And I think there’s plenty that could be done.”