Tomorrow is a holiday — Indigenous People’s Day — known previously as Columbus Day. How did we come to honor Columbus with his own holiday and dozens of statues?
When he arrived in the “New World,” North and South America had been inhabited for thousands of years. The people living here already had complex civilizations, including trade, religions, and writing systems. They were not “barely out of the Stone Age.”
Two thousand years before Columbus arrived, the Olmec were flourishing in Mexico. They were followed over time by the Maya and the Aztecs. All three civilizations had developed writing, astronomy, and mathematics. The concept of zero in mathematics was understood by the Maya before it was known by the Europeans. The Maya built temples and observatories that still stand, a thousand years later.
In South America, the Inca ruled a huge empire. They are known for their stonework, cut so precisely that walls fit together without mortar. Best known, of course, is Machu Picchu. The Inca were also artists who made intricate objects of gold.
The Nazca people lived in an arid area of present-day Peru from 500-1000 CE. They created over 800 long, amazingly straight lines in the desert floor, as well as giant geoglyphs measuring up to 1,200 yards across. Neither their purpose nor method of construction is known to us.
On our own continent, in the Four Corners region of the Southwest, people of the Chaco culture lived and built ceremonial centers. Chaco Canyon, one of these centers, was used for 300 years, until 1150. It included great houses containing up to 500 rooms. There, people traded items from the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific coast. This is also the area where there are over 600 amazing cliff dwellings. These structures, built under the mountain overhangs, housed families who made pottery and baskets.
From the time Columbus stepped off his ship onto an island in the Bahamas, he treated the people with brutality, for example, ordering violent punishment for people who refused to convert to Christianity. Columbus’s behavior was so egregious that he was called back to Spain and imprisoned. Besides the intentional cruelty and murders, the introduction of European diseases contributed to the decline of the indigenous population.
1792 saw the first public celebrations in United States marking the 300th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in the Americas, and the first national celebration took place a century later. At that time, nativist and anti-Catholic sentiment in American society had resulted in discrimination and violence against Italian immigrants. In 1937, under pressure from the Knights of Columbus, President Franklin Roosevelt declared Columbus Day a national holiday.
Whom shall we honor tomorrow? Should we continue to honor a man who set out to establish trade routes to Asia, but instead encountered islands with people whom he enslaved, tortured, and murdered? A man whose treatment of the people there was so violent that he was accused of brutality by his own contemporaries. Or should we acknowledge earlier inhabitants of the continent and the accomplishments of their civilizations, including the construction of exquisite buildings still intact a thousand years later and designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites?
Despite all the atrocities perpetrated against Native Peoples, they have defended the country in all American wars since the Revolution. And now, they are engaged in the battle against climate change. Climate change affects everyone, but indigenous people suffer disproportionately its effects. From the rising seas in the Arctic threatening coastal villages, to extreme heat in the Southwest, to forest fires and clear-cutting in the Amazon, peoples and their ways of life are being threatened. But they are fighting back. In the last 10 years, Native Americans have stopped or delayed 20 fossil fuel projects, from pipelines to coal export terminals. They are engaged in the fight for the planet. It’s time we recognized their contributions and their struggle.
Lana Gulden is president of Susquehanna Valley Progress and is involved in numerous environmental and civic organizations in the area.