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Tiya A. Miles: Similar Struggles Should Unite Native and African Americans in Protesting Columbus Day

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Columbus’ voyage to the Americas provided a direct route to the exploitation, dehumanization, and decimation of African and Indigenous peoples in the west. Whole populations of Native peoples died because of violent contact with Europeans; from the 17th and early 18th centuries in Barbados, owners of Africans worked their slaves to literal death, and then simply bought new Africans to replace them, because that strategy was more cost-effective. Columbus’ arrival in the Caribbean ushered in this shameful era.

Despite the similarities in their experiences across the generations, African Americans and Native Americans come together far too infrequently to voice a shared protest on Columbus Day.

Tiya A. Miles, Elsa Barkley Brown Collegiate Professor of African American Women’s History; Chair of Afroamerican and African Studies; and Professor of American Culture, History, Native American Studies, and Women's Studies at the University of Michigan, won a 2011 MacArthur Genius Grant for her scholarly work on the complex relationships between African and Native people in colonial America. Miles took time this Columbus Day to talk about the intersections of experience that should compel Native Americans and African Americans to come together to protest this federally-recognized holiday—and the obstacles preventing them from doing so.

What is it about the specific historical (and possibly contemporary) experiences of Native Americans and African Americans that should create similar responses to Columbus Day parades and other celebrations around the country?

I don’t know if there are similarities in the ways African Americans think about Columbus Day, but I think there are good reasons for Black and Native people to both look at Columbus Day with critical lenses. And one of those is that Columbus’ arrival in the Caribbean was really the starting point in the Americas of this whirlwind of disaster that caught up Native Americans as well as African Americans, as slaves, and in the case of Native people, with regard to the usurpation of their lands. What happened in the Caribbean is the gateway to what happened in the United States in terms of exploitation of Black and Native people and the theft of Native lands and natural resources. The Spanish were looking for resources, like gold, to extract as opposed to land to settle on.

If there are so many similarities, why do you think those different responses exist or persist?

The differences are that people tend to memorialize the events that feel closest to them, so you have African Americans celebrating Emancipation in Juneteenth events, whereas Native Americans probably aren’t really aware of those celebrations even though Emancipation affected Native groups, too. Of course, some Native Americans owned Black slaves and had to emancipate them, and beyond that some African American slaves were also of Native descent. But I think it’s a similar case for African Americans regarding Columbus Day, as it’s not really considered important to them, though of course it is. With European exploration of the Americas, and the recognition of the riches that could be reaped on the American continents, this feeds the slave trade in the Americas. So, it’s all tied up together, even though we don’t really realize it.

What is historical trauma? In what way(s) might both Native Americans and African Americans be experiencing a similar historical trauma that has its origins in Columbus' voyage and Spanish conquest of the Americas?

Historical trauma is a concept that was developed by a Native American scholar who is in the field of social work, and it is intended to try to capture the idea that the history of genocide, exploitation, racism, drug and alcohol abuse, community violence, all of these experiences have affected Native American people across the generations, so that, for example, even a Native American person today who didn’t attend a boarding school herself could be wounded emotionally because of her great grandparents’ experience in a boarding school. The pain of that original experience would in some ways be handed off across the generations. So, basically it’s the idea that people can be traumatized today by things that happened in the past.

In my field, in the humanities, I take historical trauma less literally, I take it out of a clinical context and I think about it in terms of painful memories, stories, feelings, fears, from the past that haunt us today. It’s intersectional. For African Americans, historical trauma really circles back to slavery, and because it is about slavery, it encompasses the slave trade. The slave trade is not just horrific because of what we know that comes after, but because of what folk were forced to leave behind, including their families, their communities, their cultural practices, and their homelands.

Now, I think that for Native Americans, historical trauma is probably connected back to forced relocation, such as Indian removal (for example the Trail of Tears) and also the extraction of Indian children from their communities for the purpose of sending them to boarding schools.

The point I’m trying to make is that even though it’s not obvious, there is a link here, because both events are violent ruptures and dislocations from a person’s familial and cultural and environmental contexts. I do see something very similar in both cases of historical trauma; in both experiences it’s about separation and loss.”

Why do you think these two similarly oppressed groups don't join in protest more often against Columbus Day?

African Americans and Native Americans are under siege and always have been. When you’re in a situation like that, it’s really hard to see past maybe the few main issues that are the most dire. For example, I would think that issues like drug abuse and prevention, violence against women and children, economic equity, and access to good education; healthcare; and healthy, fresh foods—those are the kinds of things people think of. People only have so much energy and time, especially because all these things are on the list—and more. I would think that the people who have the privilege of more time to make these connections and to publicize them would be the people in educational, cultural, and media fields. They are the ones who have more opportunity to write the novel, produce the documentary film, write the op-ed piece that would bring more attention to this issue.