A noticeable trend has emerged in recent years as more and more cities in the United States drop “Columbus Day” in favor of “Indigenous Peoples Day.” This name change is considered to be a great improvement by those who know that Columbus Day stands for a bloody expansion of empire and colonization. He stands for the decimation our ancestors, and the devastation of our nations and peoples. He stands for a legacy of genocide.
One way of characterizing the Columbian legacy is this: When Columbus named that first island “San Salvador” (Holy Savior), he began the process of using the human imagination to impose the dominating metaphors of Western Christendom on our nations, our ancestors, and our lands. Christendom’s imposed system of metaphors and resulting bloodshed can also be understood as a system of domination and dehumanization carried forward by the people of Christendom to advance the Empire Domination Model of Christianity. Now we are being told that one way to turn our backs on that dark and bloody legacy is by getting rid of the holiday named after Columbus, the “patron saint,” so to speak, of that history of death and colonization.
Before we move further in the direction of “Indigenous Peoples Day,” however, perhaps it would be wise to remember Dakota poet and philosopher John Trudell’s warning about what happens when, “They change the name and treat us the same.” The existing foundation of the system continues unabated because the name change is only a surface level revision.
Question: Why are we are encouraging U.S. cities to drop “Columbus Day” and adopt “Indigenous Peoples Day”? Possible answer: Because we are against the system of domination that Columbus and all of Christendom invasively imposed on our nations and peoples; the resulting system of domination is chronic and ongoing to this day.
Well, if that is the case, one might ask, then why are we using the metaphor “Indigenous” to name ourselves? That metaphor, lifted from the terminology of the United Nations (UN), merely reinforces, rather than challenges, the metaphorical system of domination being imposed on our nations and peoples? Based on the way the word “indigenous” is defined in the UN, we are merely dropping “Columbus Day” in favor of the well hidden idea of “Dominated Peoples Day.” Allow me to explain.
In the context of the United Nations and the international arena, Indigenous peoples are, according to one working definition, conceived of as having been at one time distinct peoples (nations). Then, “persons of a different culture or ethnic origins arrived there [here] from other parts of the world, overcame them, and, by conquest, settlement or other means reduced them to a non-dominant or colonial situation” (emphasis added). (Khan and Talal, Indigenous Peoples: A Global Quest for Justice (1987).
Think of the heart-wrenching process that our ancestors and our nations were forcibly subjected to in going from a pre-Indigenous (pre-dominated) existence to a dominated existence. At first, our ancestors and our nations were living free and independent of foreign domination. Then, suddenly, our ancestors and our nations were invaded and gradually “overcome,” and “reduced” down by dominating powers “to a non-dominant or colonial situation.” The colonizers then began to consider our nations and our ancestors to be dominated nations and peoples, that is, deemed as existing “under the feet” of the colonizers, to use a metaphorical expression. “They walked all over us.”
Eventually, the colonizers began to use “colonial peoples” and “indigenous peoples” as synonymous phrases. Because neither of those phrases brought domination into focus, the word “dominated” was not detected and used by us as a way to challenge the dominating society’s system and metaphors of domination.
To be named “indigenous” is to be named in terms of the opposite of the original free existence of our nations and our ancestors. To be named “indigenous” in the context of the UN is to be named in terms of what is considered to have come about after our right to a free and independent existence was supposedly ended by the “civilizing” process, i.e., being violently and semantically subjected to the metaphors of Christendom. The mission of Christendom was to use processes of domination to work toward the complete dissolution (elimination) of our free nations.
The use of the term “non-dominant” by Khan and Talal’s calls attention to an assumption that has guided “states.” According to that assumption, the Christendom’s metaphorical system of domination is now dominant, and our nations and peoples are metaphorically deemed to exist under or beneath that well-designed system of metaphors. The definition of “non-dominant” is applied to our nations and peoples because we are deemed to have been subjected in an ongoing manner to a well- designed system of domination.
If we are serious about our own liberation, by decolonizing (undominating) our minds, then we need to take a deeper look at the colonizers’ language system, and its system of metaphors. For it is by means of his language system that the colonizer spins his linguistic and metaphorical webs of empire and domination. We cannot take colonizing terminology at face value. The most comfortable and most immediate approach is not the best approach for our liberation.
We have to engage in the mentally difficult task of interpreting the words, texts, and metaphors of the colonizer so as to reveal deeper truths. Here’s a concluding point I wish to make, “Original Nations and Peoples Day” is preferable to “Indigenous Peoples Day.” However, if you feel completely committed to “Indigenous Peoples Day, then let’s use “Dominated Peoples Day” so that the image of the domination system from which we need to liberate ourselves is clear and unambiguous.
If we use words that merely serve to reinforce the existing framework of domination, then what have we truly achieved? We need to begin using language in a manner that identifies that framework and brings it to the level of conscious awareness, while at the same time challenging its false claim to legitimacy. We could use “Dominated Peoples Day” as an ironic way to point out to the world that the domination system is still being used against us, while making the argument there is no such thing as a rightof domination. In other words, our nations still have the inherent right to exist free and independent of domination and dehumanization.
Steven Newcomb (Shawnee, Lenape) is co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, and author of Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery (Fulcrum, 2008). He is a producer of the documentary movie, The Doctrine of Discovery: Unmasking the Domination Code, directed and produced by Sheldon Wolfchild (Dakota), with narration by Buffy Sainte-Marie (Cree).