We can see how Vernon Bellecourt, the quintessential AIM activist, can rub
Italian Americans the wrong way with his anti-Columbus antics. Heck, Vemon
often rubs American Indians the wrong way too. The greatest story on Vernon
is the time he called into Wounded Knee from somewhere (some say Paris,
France; others say Minneapolis), where he was lobbying for the cause as AIM
activists were holding Wounded Knee in the face of U.S. Marshals, army APCs
and drunken local goon squads. Vernon's call came through just after a
harried firefight where thousands of rounds were fired into "the Knee" by
federal agents. "Keep it up, fellows," the high-pitched voice of Vernon's
came through, "You are looking preeetty good from out here." The "fellows,"
who laughed heartily, told the story of Vernon's support call for years,
even at big pow wows and AIM gatherings.
But, you got to hand it to Vernon: There he is in Denver every year,
slamming Columbus for the genocidal force that he represented, raising
hell, insulting the locals, the cops and the media enough to get arrested
and then yell some more. Vernon continues in the tradition of an early
Russell Means and takes on every public image issue that comes along, from
Columbus celebrations to the Cleveland Indians and the Washington Redskins.
It is always a good question whether anyone's mind is changed by the
never-ending activism of Vernon Bellecourt. But you've got to hand it to
him, he annoys everyone in a fair and balanced manner.
Well, perhaps he annoys Italian Americans most directly; it was the Italian
Americans after all who inherited and embraced Columbus and made the
Genoese captain a world-class hero. They rightfully naturally enjoy a
national holiday on their distant relative's celebrated exploits and it
certainly annoys the faithful when Indians insult their hero. It gets
particularly prickly to Italian Americans when some over-passionate or
perhaps intellectually challenged Indian pipes up with insults like
"Italian scum," which has happened.
Let others develop perhaps more instructive approaches to the whole era of
Columbus and the first contacts and wars of conquest, and the various
forces that made up the European powers and the range of traditions and
historical currents that made up the Native tribes of the Americas.
Vernon's style is more direct; he aims to annoy equally and after more than
30 years of turning loose on the American psyche, he screeches nails across
the national blackboard with the best of them. This is, of course, the
often-stated AIM role, to be the shock-troops of the Indian cause, always
at the clash of the fight, confrontational, polemical and, if need be,
physical. In 1991, Vernon led a group to actually block Denver parade
participants from marching on Columbus Day. Denver's Columbus Day parade
was suspended for nine years, until 2000. This caused no end of hostility,
raised a bunch of questions and arguments, which was the intent. Old Vernon
is just carrying on, in the prescribed AIM tradition.
But Denver Post columnist David Harsanyi let the messenger get in the way
of the message in his critique of specific points on the life and legacy of
the Admiral of the Ocean Seas ("Columbus critics miss the boat", Denver
Post, Oct. 7, 2004). Harsanyi admits that "American Indians suffered
terribly under European rule. There is no argument, no excuse." But then
dismisses out of hand all of Bellecourt's arguments, which is one path to
historical myopia. We take the opportunity here to stir up the record on
this 500-year-old polemic.
The struggle over what celebrating Columbus represents is a proper one.
About Columbus we can say that he was a great mariner, perhaps the best
dead-reckoning sailor of his millennium; he was also a most cold-blooded
colonizer, personally responsible for the scheme that justified and
instituted Indian slavery. He was even chided by the Spanish monarch, Queen
Isabel, for enslaving "her subjects" so wantonly, but he persisted
nonetheless. Hero to some, villain to others, Columbus is doomed forever by
his dual legacy. For the Indian peoples of the Americas, of course, the
ocean exploits pale with the wanton and greed-induced genocidal destruction
all have endured as a result of Columbus' discovery, not of the Americas,
per se, which obviously were already inhabited by human civilizations and
cultures, but more to the point, his discovery of new places to conquer and
Harsanyi misunderstood, too, when Vernon insisted on looping contemporary
events with the legacy of colonization inherent in the history established
by Columbus. Vernon rants to the Denver Post columnist about the "plot by
the CIA in Guatemala," referring accurately to the most studied CIA coup in
history, resulting in the destruction of a democratically-elected
government in that embattled Central American country. Harsanyi brushes
this assertion off. "Since everyone knows the CIA couldn't pull off a
toddler's diaper, much less a complex coup, my reaction is to move on," he
Actually, not so fast, Mr. Harsanyi. Vernon knows his history on this one.
The CIA very directly and very forcefully carried on a massive coup d'etat
in Guatemala, in 1954, against the government of President Jacobo Arbenz.
The result was 40 years of bloody warfare and misery, as wave after wave of
guerrilla movements unleashed against the tyrannical and brutal military
governments that followed the coup. Some 200,000 people, mostly civilians
have died so far from that terrible intrusion.
The link to Columbus? That's a matter of context. The fact that the
generals - particularly a born-again, in-the-name-of-Jesus type named
Efrain Rios Montt - ultimately turned the Guatemalan conflict into a policy
of actual genocide directed at the Maya people is certainly reminiscent of
the harsh conquest times. Some historians cringe at this type of linkage,
others thrive on its connections. Vernon works to link these historical
events and we basically agree that the Guatemalan currents are still partly
driven by the historical dictum set in motion long ago.
We don't agree with Vernon very often here. We usually like a more measured
approach to solving problems among peoples, communities and families. But
we can occasionally appreciate when he tears a little crack in the
historical daydream that typically casts its pall over the American public
mind. There is a lot of discussion yet, much research, truthful writing and
feisty polemic to be generated on the 500-year-old questions raised by the
American holocaust ushered in by Columbus. Five hundred years is a long
time, too. The subsequent migrations and trans-culturations since 1492 are
also huge factors in all of our lives today. What sense we make of all that
history is what can precisely tell us the bases upon which we can approach
the future together.