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Columbus fray no holiday


The popular notion that indigenous populations of the Americas were primitive and uncivilized informed the post-Columbian celebration of a ''discovery'' of a ''new world.'' Sadly, it still does, and with as much fervor as ever. Despite decades of debunking the founding myth of the Americas by indigenous scholars - not to mention many non-academic Indian sages - the fabric of American culture still allows for outdated and wrong, racist and paternalistic information to persist. ''This tendency is so ingrained in the culture that people don't even recognize racist remarks when they are directed at Indians,'' wrote the late John Mohawk in 2006. ''They're freebies!''

As Columbus Day comes and goes this year, it is not difficult to find instances of these freebies in the media. A Denver Post columnist, fed up with Indians using the city's Columbus Day parade as an occasion to protest the genocide and slavery associated with that fateful 1492 voyage, wrote, ''Columbus may have been less than perfect as a human being, but that is no excuse for denying Italians hundreds of years later the rights of assembly guaranteed under the U.S. and Colorado constitutions.'' Such ardent defense of the holiday and its festivities may be the most appalling of ''freebies'' because they have become so ingrained in the American psyche as expressions of national pride, despite meaningful protestations by those whose ancestors knew the real story.

The self-repeating pattern of European conquest of lands and colonization of peoples through the most atrocious of acts - murder, torture, rape and slavery - defines Columbus' legacy. At least, it does for indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere. Others have differing views, like this 1989 gem offered by former President George H.W. Bush: ''On Columbus Day, we pause as a nation to honor the skilled and courageous navigator who discovered the Americas and, in so doing, brought to our ancestors the promise of the New World. In honoring Christopher Columbus, we also pay tribute to the generations of brave and bold Americans who, like him, have overcome great odds in order to chart the unknown.'' It's the same mindset, different Bush.

We are right, and have the right, to challenge this dangerous myth of discovery. In his essay, ''An Overview of Indian Populations,'' from the recently released ''American Indian Nations'' (2007, AltaMira Press), C. Matthew Snipp examines the political doctrine of terra nullius. Literally ''empty land,'' the doctrine allowed the powers that be to simply take control of lands inhabited by indigenous peoples that appeared to be unoccupied and unused by Indians. It became a primary justification for westward expansion, and continues to be such to this day. ''As Europeans came to understand that the land being taken was inhabited by indigenous people, the doctrine evolved,'' writes Snipp. ''This notion of terra nullius and the idea of uncultivated land became very important ... for opening the lands in the West for settlement, because if land is not cultivated by the Indians, it must be there for the taking.'' Indigenous peoples continue to experience modern interpretations of this doctrine in relation to waters and territories that, because of their rich resources, are deemed more valuable to the United States than to Indians. This is the invented legacy of Columbus that America cherishes.

It is puzzling that Americans express pride in their culture and citizenship through the celebration of an individual who, for millions of others, represents imperialism and genocide. In the sensationalistic media and at the forefront of protests at Columbus Day celebrations, it appears American Indians cannot seem to get over it. It's unjust and insulting to portray a whole people this way. Then again, so is having to suffer this annual indignity.