As dawn broke over the Atlantic on October 12, 1492, a perilous ten-week journey across a timeless ocean gave way to encounters and events that would dramatically shape the course of history, and be forever regarded by Europeans as the “discovery” of America. Today, we recall the courage and the innovative spirit that carried Christopher Columbus and his crew from Palos, Spain to North America, as we celebrate our heritage as a people born of many histories and traditions.
However, on his first voyage, when the Admiral of the Sea and his men laid anchor in Guanahani, an island called San Salvador by the Spanish, in the Bahamas, they met indigenous peoples who had inhabited the Western hemisphere for millennia. Columbus promptly instituted policies of slavery and systematic extermination against the native Taino population. He would later sail Africans to the islands to work as slaves replacing the dwindling Tiano population as a result of the brutality inflicted upon them. As many as eight million Tiano people existed at the outset of his regime to about three million in 1496, and perhaps leaving 100,000 by the time of the governor's departure in 1500. Columbus’s expedition founded the school of thought which would continue to be applied in the further “settling” of the North American continent for the next several centuries. While some estimates claim that during Hitler’s reign, approximately six million Jews were killed during WWII, and more than one-hundred million Indigenous individuals and hundreds of millions of Africans were slaughtered during the African/Native American holocaust — making Columbus the greatest mass murderer of the Western-hemisphere.
In a series of recent interviews I had conducted in Italy, many Italians were surprised to hear Columbus was an Indian killer, and that Columbus Day was celebrated in America. They only know he “discovered the New World.” Stephania, who lives in one of the small communes outside of Montefalco asserts, “Ï guess the Indians were better off before he came.” The same sentiment was expressed by four individuals visiting from England stating, “We had no idea this history existed.” It’s apparent, America’s and Italy’s education system, as well as others, are engaged in erasing the memory of an entire race of people through distorted history— a systematic way of deceiving and lying to adults and children. Not only are individuals presented with biased history, but also subjected to an ever-growing culture of capitalism, in which commercialization of an ambiguous holiday merely pulls us away from facts and meaning.
For example, History books tell the story of only a few Native American women, mostly because of their assistance to white America’s myth-building identity. Everyone has heard the story of Pocahontas, the friendly Indian “princess” that saved the life of a white man and then became an example of a savage turned civilized back in England. Sacagawea, the Hidatsa woman who led Lewis and Clark through the rugged terrain of the Western United States, thus paving the way for the colonization of the West. The images of these women have done more detriment than good for the modern Native American woman. Images of the “good” Indian have served to propagate stereotypes that harm contemporary Native women’s progress and color others’ perceptions about us.
As we reflect on this tragic past and the burdens tribal communities bore in the years that followed, let us turn a new chapter by commemorating the many contributions American Indians have made to the American experience. On this 521th anniversary of Columbus's expedition to the West, let us press forward with renewed determination and spirit toward tomorrow's new frontiers in understanding a new time and space.
For many Italian Americans, the native of Genoa, Christopher Columbus, inspired many generations of Italian immigrants to follow in his wanting of discovery and to seek new opportunities. For American Indians, this could be a way to chronicle and celebrate the many contributions of our rich heritage on the “New World” meeting ground on this day, October 14 as Indigenous People’s Day, 2013.
Julianne Jennings (Nottoway) is an anthropologist.