In 1993, 500 years after European invaders of the Americas had brought the first Native Americans to Europe in chains, my plane landed in Barcelona, Spain, I had been invited to the International Cultural Symposium to speak on behalf of Leonard Peltier . The day after my arrival, I took a walk down their famous Rambler to the Placa del Portal de la Pau where I ran head long into a monument of Christopher Columbus. Build for the World Exhibition in 1888, the iron column is an impressive 197 feet tall and weighs 205 tons. On top the column stands a 26 foot statue of Columbus with head sculptured high, positioned to face out over its outstretched arm, with finger pointing over the Mediterranean sea and out to the distant horizon toward the Americas. As I moved around its base I discovered a series of relief’s depicting the “new lands.” What I saw was not the innocence that had been carved, but instead the first stages of colonization, the rape and plunder of the land and people of the Americas.
Christopher Columbus was born in 1451 in Genoa, Italy. At age 14 he became a sailor, shipwrecked off of Portugal in 1470, he remained until his idea to sail west to India, known then as “Hindustan,” was financed by Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain in 1492. He reached the Bahamas on October 12th, visited Cuba and Hispaniola (Haiti), where he left a small colony before returning to Spain on March 15th, 1493 bringing with him 6 captive Taino people, taken from the Caribbean islands, who were presented to Ferdinand and Isabella in the royal court of Barcelona as proof of his travel. A painting that today hangs in (government building) show the Taino people at the feet of the king and queen in servile postures of slaves. The 6 Tainos never saw home again, their spirits still linger in the streets of Barcelona.
In his delirium Columbus thought he landed in Paradise. He wrote in his journal that Taínos had beautiful, tall, slender olive bodies. They wore short haircuts with a long hank at the back of the head. They were clean-shaven and hairless. According to Columbus the Taíno tongue was “gentle, the sweetest in the world, always with a laugh.”
Friendly relations did not last long, many Tainos were beaten and murdered. The Spanish brought diseases with them that the Tainos lacked immunity to. The weapons that the Spanish were far superior to the Tainos. An estimated fifty thousand Tainos perished within two years of Columbus landing. The Spanish jammed more then five hundred Taino prisoners into a boat for Spain. They became homeless in their own land. They were devastated by abuse, starvation, and disease. Life was never the same for Indians of the Americas after 1492. Puerto Rico, an Island once occupied by Tainos were almost wiped out within two decades.
With the arrival of Columbus begin the onslaught of genocide in the Americas that Europeans only whisper about. The legacy of Columbus has kept Native Americans at the very bottom of the socio-economic ladder. Population surveys of the Americas estimates that at the time Columbus stumbled onto the Americas 100 million people inhabited it, a count far greater then that of all Europe in those times. More then 10 million resided in the United States, today less then a million remain in the United States. Many tribes have long become decimated and extinct.
The myth that continues to be propagated is that Native Americans were savages and the civilization brought by Europeans saved them. Reality is that the foods, medicines and political structures of Native Nations in the Americas not only saved Europeans from constant famine in Europe but also taught them much about freedom and democracy, later adopted by the forefathers of Euro Americans. The model of Iroquois Confederacy (Haudenosaunee, also known as the League of Peace and Power) enabled the United States to form in part its constitution which, thanks to President Bush’s Patriot Act, is well on the road to become myth. Today, the myth of democracy, has become a perverted tool to dominate, subjugate and colonize other countries around the world such as Iraq and Palestine.
The United States held their first celebration of the “discovery of America” in New York, on October 12, 1792. At that time the only statue of Columbus in existence was in New York. In 1876, Italian Americans of Philadelphia erected a statue of Columbus in Fairmount Park. In 1905 Italian Americans in Denver, Colorado were the first to observe Columbus Day. It was not until September 1934 that President Franklin D. Roosevelt made it national holiday. Finally, Columbus Day became a federal legal holiday in 1971 after lobbying from the National Columbus Day Committee. Columbus Day or “El Dia de la Raza” has brought a wave of dissent across the United States and Canada by many Native Americans who feel that it perpetuates a myth that breeds bias and racism toward them.
Since 1970 Native Americans have gathered to commemorate a National Day of Mourning on Thanksgiving in remembrance of the genocide of millions of Native Peoples, theft of Native lands and the relentless assault on Native cultures since Columbus open the flood gates to European invasions of the Americas. It is curious that Columbus Day is, except for religious holidays, the only historical event which all Pan-American countries celebrate.
Since 1989 the Colorado AIM chapter has lead a protest against the Columbus Day Parade in Denver declaring, “As the original people of this land, we cannot and will not, tolerate social and political festivities that celebrate our genocide. We are committed to the active, open and public rejection of disrespect and racism in its various forms—including Columbus Day and Columbus Day Parades.” For these last 17 years they have tried to educate the general public about their feelings for Columbus Day; they have protested, blockaded and gone to jail for their efforts to stop this parade of indoctrinated myth keepers.
The issue of Columbus and Columbus Day is not easily resolvable in a society spoon feed on its propaganda of myths and historical lies that propagate the idea that Europeans were a superior race of two legged homo sapiens that came to save the Indians from their barbaric ways. The Europeans who came and settled invented and schooled the myth that they had created the New World by their imaged “discovery, ” just as they had come to create the creation myth of its origins known as the “Bearing Strait Theory.” Native Americans just had to have come from somewhere, but not the western hemisphere.
What good does Columbus Day contribute by celebrating racist propaganda and myths that perpetuate genocide in institutions of education. Nazi Germany is perfect example of where such false, racist and opportunistic ideas lead. The most popularly believed myth of scholars is that native Americans were Jews. Louis Hennepin, in his New Discovery of a Vast Country in America wrote, “These savages originally sprung from the Jews,” because they lived “in a form of tents, like as did Jews” and they are “subtle and crafty as Jews.”
The first thought that crept to mind was that the encounter with the statue of Columbus must represent some sort of warning and I had better watch my step. Sure enough in 1996 I was teased back to Barcelona, Spain where I began a new life out of the reach of the FBI and the emergence of fascist rumblings in the States.
Europe too, I felt, had a historical debt and there was social need to transmit that Indian cultures had not been completely destroyed. We still existed despite 500 years of genocide and so I founded an AIM museum to bring awareness of it to Europeans so that they would not forget.
ROBERT ROBIDEAU is Co Director Leonard Peltier Defense Committee. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org