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Historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz: Indigenous Peoples’ Day Shared with Columbus Day Is a “Contradiction”

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President Biden has formally recognized Indigenous Peoples’ Day as a federal holiday, following a growing movement to debunk the myth of Christopher Columbus as a beneficent discoverer and replace it with recognition that the arrival of Columbus in the Bahamas unleashed a brutal genocide that massacred tens of millions of Native people across the hemisphere. But the holiday will continue to be shared with Columbus Day, which many argue glorifies the nation’s dark history of colonial genocide that killed millions of Native people. “It’s just not appropriate to celebrate Columbus and Indigenous peoples on the same day. It’s a contradiction,” says author and historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz. “Genocidal enslavement is what Columbus represents.”

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AMY GOODMAN: Today marks the first time the United States as a nation will recognize the second Monday of October as Indigenous Peoples’ Day. This follows a growing movement to debunk the myth of Christopher Columbus as beneficent discoverer and replace it with recognition that the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the Bahamas unleashed a brutal genocide that massacred tens of millions of Native peoples across the hemisphere. President Biden Friday issued the first-ever presidential proclamation of Indigenous Peoples’ Day to honor, quote, “our diverse history and the Indigenous peoples who contribute to shaping this Nation.”

Indigenous Peoples’ Day is now a paid state holiday in Alaska, Iowa, Maine, Minnesota, New Mexico, Nevada, North Carolina, Oregon — which celebrates both Columbus Day and Native American Day — and South Dakota, Vermont and Wisconsin. More than a hundred U.S. cities have also replaced Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Even Columbus, Ohio, the largest city named after the Italian invader, stopped celebrating Columbus Day in 2018. Last year, it declared October 12th Indigenous Peoples’ Day, with the Columbus City Council President Shannon Hardin saying, quote, “It’s impossible to think about a more just future without recognizing these original sins of our past,” she said.

On Friday, Associated Press reporter Aamer Madhani questioned White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki about Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

AAMER MADHANI: The president became the first U.S. president to recognize Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Why should the U.S. continue to celebrate Columbus Day? And has there been any talk or discussion of — as many cities and, I think, a few states have shifted from Columbus Day to an Indigenous Peoples’ Day?

PRESS SECRETARY JEN PSAKI: Well, today is both Columbus Day, as of now — and this is why you’re asking the question — as well as Indigenous Peoples’ Day. I’m not aware of any discussion of ending that — either of — ending the prior federal holiday, at this point. But I know that recognizing today as Indigenous Peoples’ Day is something that the president felt strongly about personally. He’s happy to be the first president to celebrate and to make it the — the history moving forward.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined by two guests. In New Mexico, Jennifer Marley, a member of The Red Nation, a grassroots Indigenous liberation organization that helped lead a campaign in 2015 to officially recognize Indigenous Peoples’ Day in Albuquerque, New Mexico, she’s a citizen of San Ildefonso Pueblo and a Ph.D. student in the American Studies Department at the University of New Mexico. Also with us, from San Francisco, one of the first cities to recognize Indigenous Peoples’ Day, is Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, historian and author of many books, including An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States and, most recently, Not “A Nation of Immigrants”: Settler Colonialism, White Supremacy, and a History of Erasure and [Exclusion]. It includes a chapter on Columbus and so-called Columbus Day.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, let’s begin with you. San Francisco, very early on, I believe decades ago, recognized Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Can you talk about the first presidential proclamation, Biden on Friday, recognizing it, the significance of this?

ROXANNE DUNBAR-ORTIZ: Well, thank you, Amy. And hello, Jennifer.

Yeah, you know, actually, it was Berkeley that first recognized Indigenous Peoples’ Day in 1992 during the quincentennial. San Francisco came, I think, about five or six years later. But Berkeley — you know, things start in Berkeley. People think they’re crazy there, and then suddenly it’s everywhere. So, that was important. It was an effort of Ohlone people, Native people from all over Northern California and wonderful allies in Berkeley. So, that was the beginning.

We haven’t gotten rid of Fleet Week, which just was here for a week, warships in our bay and the Blue Angels strafing us for five days to celebrate Columbus, and the Italian parade in North Beach. So, it’s still — you know, Columbus is still being celebrated.

But I think it’s important to know that ever since the holiday has been — since Franklin Roosevelt made it a federal holiday, Native people have spoken out against this, and it can be documented back into the 1940s, but especially in 1977, when Indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere went to the United Nations, to the Palais des Nations in Geneva, where the human rights bodies are located, and were welcomed there, a hundred representatives. And one of the main demands they made in the — you know, which finally became the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007, was that October 12th be considered and named the International Day of Solidarity and Mourning with the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas. And I think that was when, internationally and nationally, the real movement was set off. And, of course, we had looming ahead of us the quincentenary of 1992, which Spain and the United States, in particular, teamed up to make a huge celebration worldwide. They failed miserably, thanks to Native people mobilizing, not just in the Western Hemisphere but really all over the world. So, I think the developments at the U.N. with the Indigenous peoples going onto the world stage has really made this possible.

I never thought I would see it, you know, in the 1960s or '70s. It didn't seem like there would ever be any questioning of the role of Columbus. But it will be a long struggle still. It’s just not appropriate to celebrate Columbus and Indigenous peoples on the same day. It’s a contradiction. One is a genocidal enslavement, is what Columbus represents. And the situation of Native people today, still under colonialism, with shrunken land bases and not true sovereignty, is the fruit of that beginning, and they’re completely contradictory. So, it would require an act of Congress, and that would be difficult. The Italian community and the Catholic Church would definitely oppose this, so we have really a long ways to go to make it real. But, as Jennifer said, it’s the Indigenous Peoples’ Day, and it cannot be coopted into tolerating Columbus being alongside it.

AMY GOODMAN: You write in Teen Vogue, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, “As of 2020, there were some 150 statues of Columbus across the US, most but not all of them the work of the Catholic lay organization, the Knights of Columbus and Italian communities. During the Black Lives Matter mass mobilization in 2020, at least 33 of the statues were either pulled down by protestors or removed by authorities for safe keeping storage.” Can you talk about the forces behind this recent activism?

ROXANNE DUNBAR-ORTIZ: Well, I think the most significant part of that — and Jennifer knows it, you know, on the ground — is the Black Lives Matter-led movement teamed up — I think it was when it was Albuquerque and Minnesota, especially, where the fusion of — and solidarity like I’ve never seen came together to take down those Columbus statues in Albuquerque and Minneapolis, and also in Albuquerque the Spanish conquistadors, who are so worshiped by the Hispanos there. And that was really significant.

I think one thing that surprised me was, when they were taking them down in the state Capitol, I actually was not aware that they had a Queen Isabella statue there, too, so that was taken down, as well, you know, the Spanish conqueror of Mexico and where New Mexico and, of course, California are. So we had a double whammy here in the Southwest and California of the Spanish conquest and Columbus really being closer to the grain than most U.S. Anglo people really understand. So I think that’s why you find such profound actions in New Mexico and Tano-Tewa land that Jennifer is in. This is going to be the — this is a real leadership, you know, really, of the national Native movement.

AMY GOODMAN: And we’re going to go to New Mexico in one minute, but I wanted to ask you about your latest book, Not “A Nation of Immigrants”: Settler Colonialism, White Supremacy, and a History of Erasure and [Exclusion]. Before that, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States. Not an immigrant nation — you’re sort of debunking that term that President Kennedy coined, right? “An immigrant nation.”

ROXANNE DUNBAR-ORTIZ: Yes, yes. John F. Kennedy, when he was senator, wrote a little book, published it, which has been a best-seller ever since, and it really seeped into the whole liberal culture, I would say. I don’t think right-wingers carry that book around. But it was called A Nation of Immigrants. And, of course, he was Catholic and a child of Irish immigrants, and this had never happened before, president that was not Anglo-Saxon or Scots-Irish and descended from the original settlers. So he had quite a hill to climb to make himself palatable.

So, I think that the way was already paved, I think, by the previous half-century or more with the work of the Knights of Columbus. The Knights were formed in 1882 and by Irish clerics. Most of the Irish famine immigrants who had come in the 1840s, really refugees, had — it took, you know, 20 or 30 years to sort of assimilate into — they had an advantage of speaking English, unlike the Italians, who came in the 1890s and turn of the century in great numbers. So, they absorbed. They really presented — the Catholic Church presented to the Italians this idea of the lineage of Columbus. And it was already there in the political or mythical culture in the United States. They actually discussed — I didn’t know this 'til I did the research — they actually discussed, the Founders, naming the United States Columbia, which is Latin for “the land of Columbus.” And that really was surprising to me, because I thought it was really more an invention of the late 19th century with the Knights of Columbus. But there is this mythology of Columbus as the founder of the United States, the actual founder of the United States. So, I think that attachment — that makes me better understand that attachment to Columbus statues everywhere, that is kind of in the — it's not spoken about, but it’s just kind of in the culture. And, of course, it is greatly amplified by Italians taking it up as a way of becoming Americanized.

And, of course, there was no Italy when Columbus — he was from Genoa, a city-state. He died in Spain. So, you know, it’s a very weak link to Italianness. And, of course, Italians have such illustrious people they can celebrate, that everyone celebrates — Michelangelo, Vivaldi and, of course, for us on the left, Sacco and Vanzetti.

You know, it really is — I think we have to really talk about this, and I think it’s important. You know, these symbols are very important for how people think, a kind of Americanism and, you know, a patriotism that is based on such falsehood, and the reality of slavery, enslavement of Africans, which is a part of that package of Columbus. The Holy See, the papal bulls had already given Africa to the Portuguese when Columbus came to the Americas, and then they gave — through a papal bull, 1493, gave all the Americas to the Spanish. They could enslave. It was the permission to enslave, legally, under the Holy Roman Empire. So, yeah, it’s a very, very deep history I tried to do, and not making it too archival and hard to read but just laying it out. And I think the book has a dynamism simply because I was learning so much as I wrote it.

AMY GOODMAN: Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, I want to thank you for being with us, historian and author of many books, including An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States and, most recently, her book Not “A Nation of Immigrants”: Settler Colonialism, White Supremacy, and a History of Erasure and [Exclusion].

Next up, we go to New Mexico, a site of major Indigenous activism. We’ll speak with a member of Red Nation, which helped lead the campaign for Albuquerque to recognize Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Stay with us.

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