Indigenous People’s Day: Reflecting on Racism against Native Americans

A few blocks from where I live, the annual “Columbus Day Parade” is about to disrupt traffic along 5th Avenue from 44th Street up to 79th Street, but I won’t be joining in this celebration.  Like most school children in the U.S., I was fed the lie that Christopher Columbus was “an explorer” who “discovered America.”   The local news stations here relentlessly refer to the parade as a “celebration of Italian heritage.” In fact, this is a holiday that disguises more than 500 years of church-sanctioned atrocities against indigenous peoples as well as the on-going, present-day racism against Native Americans.

While many of those who celebrate this holiday will participate in a Columbus Day Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral along the parade route (50th Street/Fifth Avenue), many others will protest the church’s participation in genocide.  In fact, for the past dozen years, there has been an ongoing counter-protest, an Annual Papal Bulls Burning.  At the Parliament of World Religions in 1993, over sixty indigenous delegates drafted a Declaration of Vision, which was originally “endorsed by resolution in a near unanimous vote” of the Parliament (Taliman 1994). It reads, in part:

We call upon the people of conscience in the Roman Catholic hierarchy to persuade Pope John II to formally revoke the Inter Cetera Bull of May 4, 1493, which will restore our fundamental human rights. That Papal document called for our Nations and Peoples to be subjugated so the Christian Empire nd its doctrines would be propagated. The U.S. Supreme Court ruling Johnson v. McIntosh 8 Wheat 543 (in 1823) adopted the same principle of subjugation expressed in the Inter Caetera bull. This Papal Bull has been, and continues to be, devastating to our religions, our cultures, and the survival of our populations.

Many indigenous peoples around the world have, since the Columbus Quincentennial in 1992, have reclaimed October 12th as International Indigenous Peoples’ Day (h/t @DinkyShop via Twitter) with celebrations and protests, with a particular focus on pressuring the Catholic Church to rescind the papal edicts (known as “bulls”), that sanctioned the genocidal practices of “explorers” like Christopher Columbus.  Here is one account from Hawai’i:

Twelve years ago, Tony Castanha, a Boricua (Puerto Rican) in Hawai’i who was reconnecting with his Taino ancestry, began commemorating the day with a ceremonial burning of the 1493 Papal Bull Inter Caetera. The Papal Bull was the holy decree which gave Columbus the Church’s blessing and authorization to “establish Christian dominion over the globe and called for the subjugation of non-Christian peoples and seizure of their lands.” This racist law became one of the foundations of the Christian Doctrine of Discovery and many laws authorizing the taking of native peoples’ land.

In a small sign of progress, the Episcopal Church recently passed a landmark resolution entitled “Repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery.”  As of yet, there’s been no response from the Catholic Church on this global movement of indigenous peoples.

The myth of “discovery” that’s woven into the celebration of Christopher Columbus as a mythic hero also serves to cover up the on-going, present-day racism against Native Americans.  In a terrific piece on “Native Americans Long Battle Against Racism,” at Global Voices Online (well worth reading in its entirety), Bernardo Parrella writes about the fact that even though there are almost 2.5 million Native Americans live in USA (0.87% of total US population), this group is largely “forgotten or invisible to the vast majority of Americans.” There are lots of resources in Parrella’s post if you decide to educate yourself about racism against Native Americans.    He also includes ways that Native Americans are using online citizen media to fight racism and stereotypes.   Just one example of these is a video called, “Racism The Way We See It” (7:50) statement about how young Native Americans experience racism within their own community:


  1. ellen says

    Darker Side of Columbus Taught in {Some} US Classrooms:
    >TAMPA, Fla. – Jeffrey Kolowith’s kindergarten students read a poem about Christopher Columbus, take a journey to the New World on three paper ships, and place the explorer’s picture on a timeline through history.

    >Kolowith’s students learn about the explorer’s significance, but they also come away with a more nuanced picture of Columbus than the noble discoverer often portrayed in pop culture and legend.

    >“I talk about the situation where he didn’t even realize where he was,’’ Kolowith said. “And we talked about how he was very, very mean, very bossy.’’

    >Columbus’s stature in US classrooms has declined somewhat through the years, and many districts will not observe his namesake holiday today. Although lessons vary, many teachers are trying to present a more balanced perspective of what happened after Columbus reached the Caribbean and the suffering of indigenous populations.

    >“The whole terminology has changed,’’ said James Kracht, executive associate dean for academic affairs in the Texas A&M College of Education and Human Development. “You don’t hear people using the world ‘discovery’ anymore like they used to. ‘Columbus discovers America.’ Because how could he discover America if there were already people living here?’’

    >In Texas, students start learning in the fifth grade about the “Columbian Exchange,’’ which consisted not only of gold, crops, and goods shipped back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean, but also of diseases carried by settlers that decimated native populations.

    >In McDonald, Pa., 30 miles southwest of Pittsburgh, fourth-grade students at Fort Cherry Elementary put Columbus on trial this year, charging him with misrepresenting the Spanish crown and thievery. They found him guilty and sentenced him to life in prison.

    >Of course, the perspective given varies across classrooms and grades. Donna Sabis-Burns, a team leader with the US Department of Education’s School Support and Technology Program, surveyed teachers nationwide about the Columbus reading materials they used in class for her University of Florida dissertation.

    >She examined 62 picture books and found the majority were outdated, containing inaccurate – and sometimes outright demeaning – depictions of the native Taino population.

    >The federal holiday also is not universally recognized. Schools in Miami, Dallas, Los Angeles, and Seattle will be open, while those in New York City, Washington, and Chicago will be closed.

    >The day is an especially sensitive issue in places with larger Native American populations.

    >“We have a very large Alaska native population, so just the whole Columbus being the founder of the United States doesn’t sit well with a lot of people, myself included,’’ said Paul Prussing, deputy director of Alaska’s Division of Teaching and Learning Support.

    >Many recall decades ago when there was scant mention of indigenous groups in discussions about Columbus. Kracht remembers a picture in one of his fifth-grade textbooks that showed Columbus wading to shore with a huge flag and cross.

    “The indigenous population was kind of waiting expectantly, almost with smiles on their faces,’’ Kracht said. “ ‘I wonder what this guy is bringing us?’ Well, he’s bringing us smallpox, for one thing, and none of us are going to live very long.”
    My comment: Slowly things are changing. In my state, schools stayed open yesterday. The kids I work with All called it Indigenous People’s Day.
    When my children were growing up this cartoon The Great American Melting Pot by School House Rock was standard Saturday morning cartoon fare. No mention is made of slavery, although the word ‘African’ in included in the ‘recipe book’ the Statue of Liberty makes her American stew with.

  2. Kt D

    This is a great post and a great video. And how relevant during the week of “Columbus Day” when the United States STILL celebrates the killing of numerous indigenous peoples, the destruction of their cultures and the stealing of their land. The least this country and its people can do during this week is to ignore this nationally-recognized holiday (as many do) and instead recognize the numerous cultures that were forever affected by this violent imperialism. International Indigenous Peoples Day is celebrated the world-over by many people–why not make this a national holiday instead?
    There is an interesting video on all of this at The video summarizes a few different perspectives, citing various sources. It’s worth watching and commenting on if you have a couple of minutes:

  3. Joe

    Some Italian Americans have criticized the obsession with Columbus and called for recognizing the activists for justice:

    “Italian-Americans continued agitating for social change. In 1942, singer Frank Sinatra recorded “The House I Live in,” a song that made the case for racial tolerance. It was written by Communist songwriter Abel Meeropol, who also penned “Strange Fruit.” From 1935-50, Harlem Congressman Vito Marcantonio fought hard for progressive legislation (including civil rights) and was attacked vociferously for it by Joe McCarthy and his buddies. During the Civil Rights Movement, Italian Americans, such as singer Tony Bennett and Father James Groppi, joined the pickets and marches down South. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Diane DiPrima and Gregory Corso were prominent voices among the Beat poets. Student activist Mario Savio led the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley.”


  4. Mom

    LOL I had forgotten about that one Dago. That’s what they called my Mother’s people and my Mother. How come you Dagos can afford meat on your sandwich? I guess, that’s what the “Shanty Irish”, would say to my Uncles at least this is what my Uncles still talks about. Dam! The more I look at this site the more I realize I’m not white. Oh, maybe, somebody could help, but I thought that England got rid of their rubbish “people” on the NINA and Santa Maria etc? I thought they were the low class criminals that England was trying to get rid of. Kinda of like Australia?

  5. JT

    i wonder if all of the native “victims” of racism who own all of the casinos and won’t help their people are racist too? uh, yah, i’d say so. the filthy rich casino owners who don’t do a thing for thier community. i know, i know, it’s the white mans fault that the indians were too stoned to protect their land. i know, i know, you can’t scream RAAAAAAACISM when europeans and africans do the same exact thing and steal each others land. it’s only america that is bad when they do it. i know, i know.

  6. ellen says

    @JT: Where did you get this goofy concept about the Native Americans being too stoned to defend their lands? It’s pretty hard to combat guns and cannons if you only have bows and arrows.
    >Also, too true JT, that all races have committed crimes against themselves. However, is it wrong to attempt to stop one race commiting a crime against another Soley Because of Racism? I don’t suppose the Holocaust rings a bell.
    > I myself am not one of those people who actually believe every ill should be dumped on the white European. However, it’s not a bad place to start. There’s plenty of cruelty inflicted on minorities in this country based exclusively on race. Your cynicism is pointless. Who Exactly are You so angry with?
    I suggest you calm down and re-think precisely what you are trying to prove. By the way, I sense some envy regarding the ‘filthy rich casino owners’. I think you’ve been watching too many Godfather reruns.


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