Steven Newcomb

On President Obama’s Columbus Day Proclamation

Pursuant to two congressional resolutions, President Barack Obama proclaimed Monday October 8, 2012 as Columbus Day. “I call upon the people of the United States to observe this day with appropriate ceremonies and activities,” he stated.

Out of the 449 words of his proclamation, President Obama devoted only 14 to the relationship between Indigenous peoples and the subsequent centuries of history that resulted from the four voyages of Columbus (aka Cristobal Col?n, “Christ-bearer Colonizer”). When we strip away the extraneous words, only five of them speak specifically to that history: “tragic burdens tribal communities bore.”

The book American Holocaust was published by David Stannard in 1992, during the quincentennial commemoration of Columbus’s first historic voyage. In the Introduction, Stannard states: “From almost the instant of first human contact between Europe and the Americas firestorms of microbial pestilence and purposeful genocide began laying waste the American natives.” Stannard continues:

Although at times operating independently, for most of the long centuries of devastation that followed 1492, disease and genocide were interdependent forces acting dynamically—whipsawing their victims between plague and violence, each one feeding upon the other, and together driving countless numbers of entire ancient societies to the brink—and often over the brink—of total extermination.

The magnitude of the death and carnage inflicted on our nations and peoples as a result of Columbus’s voyages and their aftermath was epochal—within 21 years of Columbus’s first landfall nearly 8 million people “had been killed by violence, disease, and despair.“ This certainly warrants something more from the President of the United States than “tragic burdens.”

There is sufficient documentation to back up a counter-narrative by which President Obama could have begun to set the record straight. Stannard explains that “post-Columbian depopulation rates of between 90 and 98 percent [occurred] with such regularity that an overall decline of 95 percent has become a working rule of thumb.” “What this means,” he says, “is that, on average, for every 20 natives alive at the moment of European contact—when the lands of the Americas teemed with numerous tens of millions of people—only one stood in their place when the bloodbath was over.”

David Stannard explains that the central purpose of American Holocaust is “to survey some of the more virulent examples” of the “deliberate racist purge” of Indian peoples, “from fifteenth century Hispaniola to nineteenth century California, and then to locate and examine the belief systems and the cultural attitudes that underlay such monstrous behavior.”

Stannard’s mention of California is a perfect segue to Brendan Lindsay’s Murder State: California’s Native American Genocide 1846-1873, which this column recently reviewed. Lindsay brilliantly chronicles the genocidal onslaught experienced by the Indian peoples of California. This template is accurately applied to every geographical region of what is now called the United States.

To his credit, California Governor Jerry Brown’s Ppoclamation on Native American Heritage Day was a more honest and forthright acknowledgment of the dark and bloody history of colonization. By way of contrast with President Obama’s Columbus Day Proclamation, Governor Brown wrote and spoke of the effects of “warfare, slavery and relocation” on the original nations and peoples of California. He also acknowledged one of his predecessors, Governor Peter Hardeman Burnett, as stating “That a war of extermination will continue to be waged between the two races until the Indian race becomes extinct, must be expected.”

When we examine President Obama’s proclamation in its entirety, we see that he has framed the horrific experiences of our nations and peoples as nothing other than a sad afterthought, in an otherwise cheerful and positive story of the United States. The bulk of President Obama’s Columbus Day message expresses the following language to characterize the aftermath of Columbus’s voyages:

“courage, innovative spirit that carried Christopher Columbus and his crew,” “we celebrate our heritage,” “explorers,” “countless pioneering Americans,” “same spirit of discovery that drove Christopher Columbus…to pursue the unknown,” “engineer and entrepreneurs, sailors and scientists,” “explorers of the physical world and chroniclers of the human spirit,” “broaden our understanding of the time and space we live in as a people,” “let us press forward with renewed determination toward tomorrow’s new frontiers,” “inspired generations of Italian immigrants to follow in his footsteps,” “commemorate this rich heritage.”

Unfortunately, President Obama declined to provide the people of the United States and the world with a more candid and accurate version of truth telling about the aftermath of Columbus’s voyages for Indigenous nations and peoples. Instead, he used a thick cloak of euphemistic language to hide the specific deadly consequences of Christian European colonization that gave birth to the United States.

Steven Newcomb (Shawnee, Lenape) is co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, author of Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery (2008), and Kumeyaay and Indigenous Research Coordinator for the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation. My gratitude to David Stannard for his amazing scholarship.


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On President Obama’s Columbus Day Proclamation