As the chairman and vice chairman of the National Indian Gaming Association, we offer this Columbus Day message on behalf of the 184 tribes that form our organization. Throughout this great and diverse Nation, there are certain holidays that carry more weight for certain segments of our nation than for others. This is true for Indian people as well. There are certain holidays that generate discussion amongst our Tribal citizens and their tribal governments because they speak to our place in the history of this great democracy. Columbus Day is certainly one of those holidays.
Indian people have their own governments, cultures, societies, and values that were in place long before we were supposedly “discovered.” Our status as preexisting sovereign nations is acknowledged in the Constitution of the United States in three separate sections. The treaties our ancestors signed with the United States are still in force today and are as the Constitution states: “The supreme law of the land.” Tribes have great respect
for the preservation of our roles as separate sovereigns under the Constitution and at the same time Indian people are proud American citizens as shown through our high rates of participation in military service to this nation. Tribes are determined to uphold their rights assured through the treaties with the United States of America and to ensure that our children are provided with accurate historical accounts of our families, societies, governments, and status as separate nations, as well as our true place in world history.
Therefore, each Columbus Day we must take time to talk about the history of our Indian nations before and after “discovery.” The truth of Christopher Columbus, or Cristoforo Colombo as he was known in his time, has been well documented and it is one which we, as Indian people, should never forget. We can no more forget the tremendous genocide that started with Christopher Columbus’ enslavement of Native people on his first visit to America, any more than we can afford to forget the massacres hundreds of years later by the U.S. Cavalry on our ancestors, elders, women and children. Wounded Knee, Sand Creek, and the Trail of Tears come to mind when I think about our history and it hurts to know that Colombus’s voyage was the beginning of centuries of subjugation of our people. In that maiden voyage of the Ninã, Pintã, and Santa Maria, names American school children can recite from memory, Columbus landed on the Island of Hispanola (now the Dominican Republic and Haiti). After remarking in his captain’s log of the hospitality he and his men received, Colombus wantonly killed and enslaved the Arawak people he found thus beginning his quest for gold and glory. Unfortunately, this was just the beginning for indigenous people in the Americas. Centuries of government sponsored oppression, thefts of land, outlawing of religions and languages, mass removals, and massacres were to follow.
We cannot turn back the calendar anymore than we can change today the outcomes of those terrible events experienced by every tribe in this country. We cannot change history, but we can change the manner in which the facts of history are celebrated and taught in our schools. There is another side of the story about Columbus and his voyage. The true Native American history, of thriving economies and sophisticated systems of government which existed long before they were “discovered,” is rarely taught in our schools, and is rarely mentioned or acknowledged.
In 2008, Congress passed and President Obama signed House Joint Resolution 62 designating the day after Thanksgiving as “National Native American Heritage Day.” The resolution developed as a bi-partisan effort under the Bush Administration and in 2009 President Obama signed the “Native American Apology Resolution” sponsored by former Senator and current Governor of Kansas Sam Brownback.
These are steps the United States has taken to at least acknowledge the mistakes of the past and the atrocities committed in dealing with America’s first people. It also signals a willingness to balance the misleading historical record taught through Columbus Day with a day of recognition for the Native American contributions to this great Country. It is a small step, but Tribes intend to build off the impact of the Apology and Heritage Day laws and make further progress to shed light on the ‘real’ history of this country.
For Indian country, educating our children about the past is as much of a responsibility as anything our Tribal Governments can do for the general welfare of their people. As Indian leaders, we urge all of the communities across the country to take a few minutes today and acknowledge the accurate history, both before and after contact, of the proud people you know today as Native Americans.
As we celebrate other holidays, Indian Country will be calling on your communities to honor and celebrate Native American Heritage Day on the Friday following Thanksgiving. Tribal Governments and National Tribal Organizations such as NCAI and our organization, will be calling on Congress to take the final step and designate Native American Heritage Day a national holiday. Even though we have a long way to go and many opinions to influence, Indian Country is united in obtaining a national holiday that acknowledges American history as well as the narrative history of the Native Americans supposedly “discovered” by Christopher Columbus.
Ernest L. Stevens Jr., chairman, National Indian Gaming Association; and Kevin Leecy, chairman, Bois Forte Band of Chippewa Indians, vice chairman, National Indian Gaming Association