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On Columbus Day, Indigenous Urge Celebration of Native Culture & Teaching of the Americas’ Genocide

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As the nation commemorates the arrival of Christopher Columbus to the so-called “New World” in 1492, indigenous activists at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado, are pushing for schools to teach the “real history of the Americas” and to celebrate indigenous culture. “Columbus Day” has long evoked sadness and anger amongst people of color, especially Native Americans, who object to honoring a man who opened the door to European colonization, the exploitation of native peoples, and the slave trade. We’re joined by three guests involved with the “Real History of the Americas” day: Esther Belin, a writing instructor at Fort Lewis College and a member of the Navajo Nation; Shirena Trujillo Long, coordinator of El Centro de Muchos Colores at Fort Lewis College and chair of the the Real History of the Americas Committee; and student activist Noel Altaha, a member of the White Mountain Apache Tribe and Fort Lewis College senior. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We are broadcasting today from Fort Lewis College. Today marks Columbus Day, a federal holiday to commemorate the arrival of Christopher Columbus to the so-called “New World” in 1492. But the holiday has long evoked sadness and anger amongst people of color, especially Native Americans, who object to honoring a man who opened the door to European colonization, the exploitation of native peoples, and the slave trade. Instead, they’re calling people to “reconsider” Columbus Day by acknowledging the genocide of indigenous peoples and celebrating Native American traditions.

RECONSIDER COLUMBUS DAY AD: Columbus Day, a day that our government has deemed worthy of remembrance. But with all due respect—with all due respect—with all due respect, there’s an ugly truth that has been overlooked for way too long. Columbus committed heinous crimes against the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean and millions of natives throughout the Americas. And Columbus set the stage for the slave trade in the New World. So, please, please reconsider if this is a man you want to honor. Reconsider if you want to celebrate the crimes of Columbus. It’s not your fault; it happened a long time ago. But remaining neutral and pretending like it didn’t happen, or that it doesn’t still impact us today? So, please, take the day to learn the whole story.

AMY GOODMAN: We are broadcasting today from Fort Lewis College here in Durango, Colorado. The community is reclaiming Columbus Day, turning it into a day to celebrate indigenous people’s cultures, language, music and other traditions, holding a “Real History of the Americas” day.

Fort Lewis College was once a military fort, later turned into an Indian boarding school, then turned state public school. Due to a century-old promise made by the state of Colorado, the college waives the tuition costs for all its Native American students. Today the college awards approximately 16 percent of the baccalaureate degrees earned by Native American students in the United States. The waiver has changed the lives of thousands of Native American students and, in many ways, has come to define the college. But it’s now being challenged at a time of state budget constraints. Fort Lewis College graduates more Native Americans than any four-year college in the United States.

We’re joined now by three guests involved with the Real History of the Americas day. Esther Belin is a writing instructor here at Fort Lewis College and a member of the Navajo Nation, as well as an indigenous activist, a poet. She won the American Book Award for her book of poetry. Shirena Trujillo Long is coordinator of El Centro de Muchos Colores at Fort Lewis College and chair of the Real History of the Americas Committee. And we’re joined by Noel Genevieve Altaha, a student coordinator for today’s events. a member of the White Mountain Apache Tribe and a senior here at Fort Lewis College majoring in psychology, minoring in Native American and indigenous studies.

We welcome you all to Democracy Now! Let’s begin with Shirena Trujillo Long. Talk about this day, how you’re trying to reframe Columbus Day.

SHIRENA TRUJILLO LONG: Sure. This day here at Fort Lewis College is very unique, because we really have so many vibrant tribes and vibrant people still living, after Columbus Days, “1492, sailed the ocean blue,” that we were always taught. We still have people living, and we celebrate the beautiful things that they have to offer. Here on campus, we’ve done it for the last four years. And it really started because we wanted to do something different on Columbus Day. We didn’t need to have the day off to celebrate him and his discoveries. We wanted to celebrate what we still have.

AMY GOODMAN: What does it mean to say Christopher Columbus discovered the New World?

SHIRENA TRUJILLO LONG: Very hurtful for many, many people. That is very hurtful to say, that we were discovered. I am not Native American myself but have lived in this region in the Four Corners for my whole life and am half-Hispana and half-white. And so, the stories that I was always told was very clear in school: who discovered who. And it wasn’t really until I was a student here at Fort Lewis College also that I saw a different story. And I wanted to be able to share that with others. And that’s why we started today.

AMY GOODMAN: Noel Altaha, you’re a senior. You’re a member of the White Mountain Apache Tribe. Where is your family from in the United States?

NOEL GENEVIEVE ALTAHA: So, we’re from the Fort Apache Indian Reservation in White River, Arizona. And before there were state lines and borders, my people came from the Whitewater area. So it’s part of my clan, and it’s part of my identity. And that’s where they still are today.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re one of the major organizers of this day of events. What are you trying to convey? For people who are saying, “What are you talking about? Christopher Columbus came, and he discovered America,” tell a different story to us today.

NOEL GENEVIEVE ALTAHA: Well, Amy, I’m just here to share where I come from. And in my tribe, it’s really important to use your words wisely and to—there’s a saying: nijaa’ hayu [phon.]. And that’s “Where are your ears?” my grandma would say. And it’s really important to listen more than to talk. Creator gave you two ears and one mouth for a reason—to listen—because listening is more important than talking sometimes.

And I was talking to my grandfather this morning, and I said, ”Shiwóyé hastiin, I’m talking to Amy Goodman.” And he’s like, “Who?” I said, “Amy Goodman.” “Oh, what tribe is she?” And—but you do come from a tribe, and that’s really important, you know? Your ancestors came, and we all come from a people, and that’s part of our identity. And so, my job is just to be the vessel that allows others, those peoples that were—their stories were hidden and erased and silenced on this one day, to share and embrace that.

AMY GOODMAN: Esther Belin, you’re with the Navajo Nation. You’re a writing instructor here, an acclaimed poet. Talk about this day’s meaning, in your community and the rest of people in the United States. Talk about it as a federal holiday, Columbus Day.

ESTHER BELIN: You know, I’d have to kind of align with Noel in terms of how we individually look at this day. You know, you definitely can embrace the pain and the genocide that has been our history and our foundation, and that is definitely a valid emotion, a valid, you know, almost reaction for indigenous people. And I think as you grow in awareness and maturity and are given opportunities to present, we have to go beyond that. And what I mean by that, individually we all go through our own healing. We don’t have a healing process in this country called the United States. There is no platform, no medium, no expectation of that. And, you know, as tribal people, we’ve—that’s been part of our worldview, you know, just like Noel said, where, you know, we see everyone as coming from a tribe, whether they acknowledge it or not. And it’s super important for us to start that healing process and then, as well, to talk about it and to guide other people around their own trauma, which it is an historical trauma. It’s legitimate, and it is as valid as the pain where some people have no idea where it came from. And that discovery is—you know, to give articulation to that is so powerful, it’s so emotional.

And, you know, as I use the English language, I see myself as an interpreter. I have been chosen this route. I have been chosen for this time to use that language to speak for others that are in, you know, a void or in a trauma that they have no articulation yet. And I think that is the major reason I have been involved in this event, because we get to celebrate those articulations. We get to celebrate that pain and legitimize it as real. And whether, you know, we can include everybody or not, we definitely have that emotion. We know that more are coming to support.

AMY GOODMAN: We are talking with Esther Belin, who is of the Navajo Nation; Noel Altaha, White Apache—White Mountain Apache; and Shirena Trujillo Long, Hispana, as she says, here in Fort Lewis College in Durango, which is celebrating a day of the Americas today. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: We are broadcasting from Fort Lewis College, Fort Lewis College in the Four Corners in southwest Colorado, as we continue our 100-city tour. Tonight we’ll be at Mancos Opera House. Tomorrow—and this afternoon at noon, we’ll be at—in Moab, Utah. And then we’ll be back here in Durango.

Fort Lewis College graduates more Native Americans than any four-year college in the United States. It is actually a non-tribal college. And we’re joined by three of the members of this community, two of whom have organized Real History of the Americas alternative day of events today. We’re joined by Shirena—we are joined by Shirena [Trujillo Long], who is one of the longtime organizers of this. We are also joined by Noel Genevieve Altaha, who is a senior here at Fort Lewis College, very active in today’s events, and Esther Belin, who is an instructor of writing and a member of the Navajo Nation.

Esther, I was wondering if you could read from your poetry, from The Belly of the Beast [sic].

ESTHER BELIN: Amy, most people do—

AMY GOODMAN: Oh, I said it wrong.

ESTHER BELIN: —mispronounce it. And, you know, I’ve been questioned about my title many times. And it’s From the Belly of My Beauty. And the title really stems from this idea of not only our ceremony called the “Beauty Way,” from the Navajo, but that idea again of—all these words were, you know, circulating inside of me in terms of, you know, wind and moisture and breath. And when they came out, I wanted them to be a contribution and not take away from our ideas, I guess, of what our people are.

And so, I’m going to read an excerpt of a piece. I graduated from the University of California at Berkeley as an undergrad, and I was asked to present the senior speech. And, you know, I had no idea what I was going to say, because I was really conflicted most of my undergrad years in terms of what my presence was at the university as an indigenous student, seeing how most of my family was, you know, living in poverty, and even my own mother was, you know, working two jobs. And I thought, “What am I doing here, and why are people paying me to read books?” And so, this is part of that.

surviving in this place called the united states
is possible

for those who take it seriously

“if I were japanese
i would be a nisei
i am second-generation

my mother comes from
the land of enchantment
now also the land of poverty
and confusion

my mother
like many japanese during world war II
was relocated
off the rez
to a federally run
boarding school
in riverside, california, USA”

my mother resides still
among yellow-brown haze
indigenous and immigrant smog in los angeles
skyscraping progress pushing her home

i’m sure when you were young
your history books told you all about indians
i’m sure when you were young
you saw indians on TV
indian princess
rotund squaw
blood-thirsty brave
stoic chief
ungrateful drunk

i’m sure when you were young
your fifth grade teacher couldn’t tell you why

men worked on cars and built airplanes and school buses
men drank beer and played pool
they had friends named Buffalo Joe and Harold Jim
they laughed a lot and yelled a lot
and called white men chicken —-—-
men stayed at bars all weekend and wore dark glasses and sat in the back at church
their shame silenced and their anger roared you into an arroyo
safe from them and you didn’t want to be like them
or know anyone like them
or love anyone like them

when i was young
i saw men as father
as a grown woman
i see my father in me
become me

sitting in a bar
silencing the war cry of my mothers corralled at bosque redondo
numbing the wound deep in my valley of cowboys and indians
recycling the memory of cold mountain fever

AMY GOODMAN: Esther Belin, reading from her poetry book, From the Belly of My Beauty. Esther, if you can talk about what it meant to grow up, as you say, “off-rez,” and what it means to live on the reservation, which you go back and visit.

ESTHER BELIN: Oh, yeah. So I’m a byproduct of the federal relocation and termination era in this country. And so I grew up, you know, really living in two worlds in the L.A. area and embraced every bit of that culture, which was—you know, I lived in a—in, I guess, a poor neighborhood and—but always knowing that we had that connection, right? My parents spoke Navajo, and we ate Navajo food, and our worldview really was that Navajo worldview. And in terms of just our placement in school—you know, our mom trained us from day one, you know, when you walk out that door, people will be against you. They’ll be against your thoughts. They’ll be against your worldview. You really have to be prepared, because they’re going to challenge things about your—who you are. And you need to know the other side in order to survive, because she and my father both had really traumatic experiences in boarding school. And, you know—and that was, day one, what she taught us.

AMY GOODMAN: And those experiences were, in boarding school?

ESTHER BELIN: Yes, they were in the boarding—

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, in boarding school, what were those experiences?


AMY GOODMAN: Explain the Indian boarding school system in this country.

ESTHER BELIN: Sure. You know, for her, my mom always considers herself lucky in that she went to a boarding school with her sisters. And so, at night, you know, after dark, they would talk to each other and comfort each other. But during the day, they were isolated, and they were forced to—you know, and ridiculed, traumatized around the English language. And that idea I said earlier about articulation, of course it’s so hard for tribal people to articulate that. You know, when somebody yelling and forcing you to be creative or have a say, and you don’t have any grasp of the language or the context. And so, she was—

AMY GOODMAN: The boarding school saying you could not speak in Navajo?

ESTHER BELIN: Yeah, you could not speak your language, and they forced you to speak the English language. And, you know, they forced her to choose a name. And, you know, for a while they thought my mom had tuberculosis, so she was isolated for almost a year. And she never had tuberculosis. And so, just all these traumas to her and her identity, thinking that something is wrong, you know, and that the way they cook is wrong and the foods they like. And they had to eat those foods. You know, my mom still can’t eat mayonnaise to this day because it just makes her sick. You know, they made them eat the condiments and, you know, learned how to vacuum and set tables and, you know, be proper young women at the—it was in the ’50s era, is when she went.

AMY GOODMAN: Noel Altaha, you went to an Indian boarding school in Salem, Oregon?

NOEL GENEVIEVE ALTAHA: I did. I went to Chemawa Indian High School. And my time in boarding school was not of the traumatic experiences of my family. My parents and my grandparents went to boarding school, and my grandfather used to run away. And the Fort Apache Indian Reservation had a boarding school, too. And my mom went to a foster home.

But my time in boarding school, I remember walking across campus and hearing Pimas talk their language, and then walking to class and hearing Chippewas talk their—and I was like, “What is that?” And that’s their native tongue. But when I was six, my mom took me to Oklahoma City, and I spoke Apache pretty much before I spoke English, but I remember being traumatized when I was six, and my teacher laughed at me because I didn’t know that the rest of the world called an apple an “apple.” To me, it was masáána. And it was so funny to me that English is so backwards to the rest of the languages that I feel make sense.

So, when Esther Belin talks about that trauma, it may have not happened to me personally, but I still feel it collectively. And Esther Belin talks about that “I am because we are,” and that really stayed with me, because I can’t speak for all native peoples, but I can speak on behalf of my experiences and those of the stories that other people share with me. So…

AMY GOODMAN: Can you share a message to people who are listening and watching this broadcast now, in Apache?


NOEL GENEVIEVE ALTAHA: [speaking Apache]

AMY GOODMAN: And tell us what it means.

NOEL GENEVIEVE ALTAHA: Basically, I just introduced myself in my native tongue. And sometimes in English there are no words to express what it means to be ndee. We don’t call ourselves Apache; we call ourselves ndee, “the people.” And what that means is, we come from this land, we come from this area, we come from the animals and the earth, and we come from each other. And so, when you come from a people, you learn about respect. And that sometimes is limited in the English language. You know, sometimes you have to express it in a ceremony. You have to express it by showing compassion, by dancing, by singing, by just being with someone and listening more than speaking.

AMY GOODMAN: Shirena, as a Hispana, how do you relate to this area of a tremendous diversity of culture and this program that you helped to establish here at Fort Lewis College on this day that others observe as Columbus Day?

SHIRENA TRUJILLO LONG: As a Hispana Americana, so I would be half-Hispanic. I’m what, in this region of the Southwest, we would call coyotes, not the coyotes smuggling people on the borders, but the coyotes that are half and half of two different cultures. So, when Esther speaks about living in two worlds, the two worlds that I live in personally, my experience has been very German American, my mother’s side Schenck Prouty [phon.], and then very Hispana American right here from this region. We have a saying in this area about the border didn’t cross us, you know—we didn’t cross the border; the border crossed us. And so, that’s sort of, in this region, how we look at a lot of the history of the area.

The way that this event speaks to me is, it feels so good even just in this short time to talk about it. What we are doing is giving voice to the unvoiced. And it is about looking at your own story, how you fit in the puzzle. And that’s what this event has helped me do and we’re helping others do, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Esther Belin, a message in Navajo?

ESTHER BELIN: And I’ll do an introduction, as well. [speaking Navajo] And for us, when we do our—even our basic introduction, it is—we acknowledge all of our grandparents. And so, for me, I am related to people in my mother’s clan—that’s who I adopt—and then, through my father, I am a sort of a distant relative to them. And then I acknowledge my grandparents. We’re matrilineal, so it goes through the mother. So we have four clans. That’s how we know, and we sort of position ourselves within our community. And, you know, clans are known for different things.

And, for me, my clan is one of an adopted clan, where, you know, there’s two different stories I’ve heard, but one of them is that one of our major chief, Manuelito, his wife, as they were traveling to and from Santa Fe many times, they would stop at different Indian pueblos, Pueblo tribes on the way. And one of them was the Zia Pueblo. And they would always bring stuff to trade—blankets or corn or whatever, in terms of harvest. And the Zia Tribe adopted Chief Manuelito’s wife Juanita. And so, she was the first Tl’ogi from that area, and so we’re descendants of her, which—so we’re—and that makes sense, because we’re part of the checkerboard region on the eastern side of the Navajo reservation.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you all for being with us. Esther Belin read from From the Belly of My Beauty, her book of poetry, and she teaches writing here at Fort Lewis College in Durango. She was also joined by Shirena Trujillo Long, who is one of those who has established this special day called “Real Histories of the Americas.” And I want to also thank our final guest, Noel Altaha, a student coordinator for Real History of the Americas day here at Fort Lewis College. She’s a senior majoring in psychology and minoring in Native American studies.

When we come back, we’ll be joined by Dennis Banks. He’s joining us from New York, where he was attending the Russell Tribunal on Palestine. This is Democracy Now! on this day that some call Columbus Day; others talk about in a different way, wanting to bring out the real history of the Americas. Stay with us.

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Native American Leader Dennis Banks on the Overlooked Tragedy of Nation’s Indian Boarding Schools

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