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Morris: How Columbus Day harms American Indians

This column explains why Native people should resist Columbus Day, and why the rejection of the racist philosophy behind Columbus Day may be the most important issue facing Indian country today.

In Colorado, we know something about Columbus Day. We have been working for the past 18 years to dismantle this anti-Indian celebration. Columbus Day was born in Colorado in 1907, the first state to designate the holiday. Over the past 18 years, we have learned a lot about Columbus Day - its origins, its true meanings and its importance to U.S. identity and persistent anti-Indian racism.

As a national holiday, Columbus Day has virtually nothing to do with honoring Italian heritage or culture, and it is not about celebrating mutually held values of decency, respect or justice. Columbus Day celebrates two critical developments integral to the establishment and advancement of the United States. First, it celebrates invasion and domination, especially of indigenous peoples' territories; second, and much more importantly, it celebrates the invention and the legal institutionalization of the ''doctrine of discovery.''

''Columbus discovered America'' is often euphemized to mean simply that Columbus was the first European to arrive here. But discovery has been, since at least the 15th century, a legal and political term of art used to rationalize the European theft of Indian territories in the Americas. In actuality, what Columbus Day celebrates is the conversion of Columbus' acts in 1492 to a legal principle, the doctrine of discovery, first outlined in the 1823 U.S. Supreme Court Johnson v. M'Intosh decision. Johnson was then used to legitimize the subordination of Native peoples, and the taking of nearly 2 billion acres of indigenous territory, by the invading ''civilized, Christian, Europeans.''

Johnson v. M'Intosh is the opinion upon which the entirety of federal Indian law (and U.S. property law) is constructed. Every destructive opinion by the Supreme Court, every destructive policy of Congress or the president to this day, is made possible because of Johnson v. M'Intosh.

In Johnson v. M'Intosh, Chief Justice John Marshall outlined the doctrine of discovery, writing that ''discovery gave title to the government by whose subjects, or by whose authority it was made.'' He also stated that ''discovery gave exclusive title to those [Europeans] who made it.'' Eastern Shawnee legal scholar, Robert Miller, concluded that the doctrine of discovery is the linchpin that has been consistently used to justify the brutal territorial expansion of the United States.

Lumbee law professor Robert Williams Jr. put a fine point on the importance of Johnson v. M'Intosh today. Williams calls Johnson v. M'Intosh the most important Indian law case ever decided; he then stated that Johnson v. M'Intosh ''has to be considered one of the most thoroughly racist ... decisions ever issued by the Supreme Court.'' What really matters today is that Johnson v. M'Intosh remains in force. Williams concluded that no one on the Supreme Court today ''seems to have the least problem with Johnson v. M'Intosh's legalized presumption of Indian racial inferiority, [or] its incorporation into U.S. law [the] legal doctrine of conquest and colonization.''

Columbus Day and the Johnson ruling work hand in glove. Johnson v. M'Intosh was extended in court decision after court decision, and in the official 19th century U.S. policy of Manifest Destiny. Manifest Destiny advanced the idea that God had given the white race permission to take possession of all of North America, while necessarily destroying Native peoples in the process.

Manifest Destiny was declared a success at the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago, the first time that Columbus was elevated to national icon status. The World's Fair, known also as the Columbian Exposition, was the merger of the philosophy and the success of Johnson v. M'Intosh with idea of Columbus as national poster boy for U.S. colonialism. Professor Shari Hundorf wrote that ''undefinedy commemorating Columbus' 'discovery' of the Americas in 1492, planners made imperial conquest the defining moment of the nation's past [and future].'''

Columbus Day has become the U.S. holiday that celebrates the imperialist redemption of America from Indian ''savagery.'' Johnson v. M'Intosh becomes the necessary legal reinforcement to salve the conscience of America for the theft of a hemisphere. Columbus Day has become the mask that allows America to pretend that it can justify the taking of other peoples' homelands. Luther Standing Bear wrote in 1933 that ''The man from Europe is still a foreigner and an alien. And he still hates the man who questioned his path across the continent.'' The United States has created Columbus Day to rationalize its historical crimes against indigenous peoples.

If Native people do not challenge the fundamental premise of the ''doctrine of discovery,'' as celebrated every year through Columbus Day, then the racist foundation upon which all federal Indian law and policy is constructed will remain intact. We see the ideology of domination carried to this hemisphere by Columbus playing out every year all over Indian country. We see it in the level of Indian incarceration, in the loss of religious freedom cases, in Indian child welfare cases where non-Indian courts ignore the law, in treaty cases where the United States ignores international standards, in international practice where the United States voted against the adoption of the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and in the Cobell trust fund case where the United States refuses to account for tens, if not hundreds, of billions of dollars that are owed to Individual Indian Money trust accounts.

The removal of Columbus Day will not solve all of the problems in Indian country, but it will begin to call into question the legitimacy of the racist legal, cultural and political doctrines that continue to deny Native people freedom in our own homeland. Just as African-Americans challenged U.S. segregation in the 1954 case Brown v. Board of Education, Native people actively and consistently challenging Columbus Day and the doctrine of discovery should force the United States to answer basic questions about the legitimacy of their existence, their identity, their privilege, and the real price that Native people continue to pay for the ongoing application of the doctrine of discovery.

A popular maxim in Indian country, based on the Iroquoian principle, is that we must make decisions based on how they will affect the next seven generations. If we do not begin seriously to dismantle the doctrine of discovery, Columbus Day and the Columbian legacy, then we will be betraying our responsibility to the seventh generation, and we may well be ensuring their destruction.

Glenn T. Morris, Shawnee, is a member of the Leadership Council of the American Indian Movement of Colorado, an attorney, and a professor of political science at the University of Colorado at Denver.