Columbus The Killer

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Exploring Columbus Day

Yesterday was Columbus Day and I have to proclaim it as one of our most minor holidays, right down there with Arbor Day, Flag Day, and maybe just a little less prominent than Groundhog Day.

I was tempted to post an anti Columbus rant yesterday, but out of respect for Italian-Americans I decided to delay until at least the holiday was over.

Why would I care if we honor Columbus and set aside a special day to recognize his place in our history? What wrong with that?

Here’s why:

First, Columbus didn’t actually discover America. The Vikings had already voyaged here long before he made it. So my first objection is that we’ve all been taught a lie, and that lie is being perpetuated to this day in our schools.

Secondly, and more importantly, there were millions of people living full and vibrant lives on this continent when Columbus “discovered” it. The ancestors of these inhabitants were the real discoverers, and the first people to set their feet on American soil.

Thirdly, where’s their holiday? Is there any holiday which recognizes Native Americans? Why not? Is their contribution to our heritage less than that of one plucky Italian sailor? I don’t think so.

Fourthly, there’s a dark side to Columbus Day. What Columbus actually accomplished was to set in motion a genocide of native peoples by European intruders. I’ve taken some blowback for a previous blog about Thanksgiving in which I pointed out that the Pilgrims and other early settlers ruthlessly slaughtered tribes in Massachusetts Colony, another little shameful anecdote from American history we’d rather ignore.

Fifthly, Columbus himself was not above killing native peoples. Maybe this is a truth Americans would prefer not to hear, but Columbus and his men raped, murdered and took as slaves the natives they encountered. Do we really want to honor and continue to tell school children what a great person he was?

Does anybody care about all this? Not very much. The descendants of what was left of the original occupiers of this continent have been so marginalized and so overwhelmed by European bloodlines, we seem to rarely ever consider  their point of view. Which seems a little weird.

I thought our country had developed some appreciation for the value of diversity in our culture. The fight for minorities to be included in the American experience has become a foundation of political correctness.

Except for one group, which hardly ever seems to get any recognition. Native Americans still live in abject poverty, confined by economic reality to some of the worst pieces of land the government could find.

There are no prominent Native American politicians, few celebrities, almost no wealthy tycoons among them. In fact, they are practically invisible in American culture.

We live in a country where Johnny Depp can portray a Native American in a Disney movie and hardly anyone seems to care. European descendants have no problem adorning their bodies with beautiful jewelry inspired and often actually created by native people, while turning their back on the plight of these people in our society.

Let me ask you this. What other minority group has to suffer a professional sports team whose name is a racial slur? Answer, none. That situation would  not be tolerated by our culture. But the Washington Redskins will be cheered on once again this weekend by adoring fans.

This is an ugly truth we need to fix. We need to stop worshipping false heroes and admit our role as mass murderers.

At the least, a minor holiday should mark the people who first inhabited this country. Call it Crazy Horse Day, or Sequoyah Day, or Geronimo Day, but for the sake of all that’s right, let’s do something.

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Thanksgiving and the American Holocaust

A few months ago I learned that I am directly descended from a married couple, William and Susanna White, who arrived on these shores in 1620 aboard the Mayflower. While most people are proud to have ancestors who were Pilgrims, I have very mixed feelings about it because I also have a quantum of Native American blood. Here’s why I’m somewhat mortified about my Pilgrim heritage:

In a few days, we celebrate Thanksgiving, and school children will be hearing the myth about its founding, how the Pilgrims and Indians sat down to a meal together as friends and celebrated the harvest.

Like most myths, it has elements of truth, but it also totally ignores a dark side of the Plymouth Colony and other early settlers, the fact that in less than two decades they killed off nearly every member of the native tribes that had lived there for thousands of years and forced the rest onto reservations and stole their lands.

The local Indians were already wary of the English when the Pilgrims arrived in 1620. Earlier exploratory missions had routinely slaughtered the indigenous people and rounded them up to be taken to England and sold as slaves. Squanto, of the Thanksgiving story, spoke English because he had been one of the natives kidnapped and taken to England as a slave, but managed somehow to return home.

The colony’s crops failed in 1621, and they were saved from starvation through the efforts of Squanto, who had managed to grow 20 acres of corn. Though the Native Americans were suspicious of the English colonists, they nevertheless taught them their agriculture and fishing skills. Without these skills, the Pilgrims, half of whom died anyway, would have completely perished. They owed their very lives to the Indians.

Following the harvest, the colonists invited one Indian chief to come for a feast. To their horror, he arrived with 90 of his tribesmen who all joined them for the celebration. The Indians were never invited back and some historians argue that the main purpose of the invitation was to negotiate with the chief for their land.

The Pilgrims also cleverly set local tribesmen against each other, preferring to let the Indians kill each other off rather than doing it themselves. When a chief refused to cooperate with their treachery, he was beheaded and his head displayed at Plymouth Colony.

The Pequot Tribe occupied lands in the Plymouth area. Shortly after the arrival of the Pilgrims, many of the native inhabitants began to fall sick and die. Given the description of their deaths, smallpox was probably the disease which devastated the Pequots. The Pequots were estmated to number about 8,000 when the Pilgrims arrived. By 1637, disease brought by the Pilgrims had reduced their numbers to 1,500.

On the orders of the colonial governor, about 700 Pequots were slaughtered by the colonists in a massacre in 1637. The Indians were holding their green corn festival when an armed band of colonists surrounded the village by night and killed nearly everyone including women and children. Here is a description of the massacre written by William Bradford:

“Those that scraped the fire were slaine with the sword; some hewed to peeces, others rune throw with their rapiers, so as they were quickly dispatchte, and very few escapted. It was conceived they thus destroyed about 400 at this time. It was a fearful sight to see them thus frying in the fyer, and the streams of blood quenching the same, and horrible was the stincke and sente there of, but the victory seemed a sweete sacrifice, and they gave the prayers thereof to God, who had wrought so wonderfully for them, thus to inclose their enemise in their hands, and give them so speedy a victory over so proud and insulting an enimie.”

By the end of 1637, only a handful of Pequot were still alive. The massacre set the precedent for what would become a more than 200-year genocide of Native Americans. Massachusetts Colony also initiated the reservation system which would become the model for the isolation and deprival of the indigenous peoples.

Perhaps historian Gilbert Mercier said it best: “In other words, celebrating Thanksgiving is as if Germany had a day of celebration for the Holocaust. Thanksgiving is the American Holocaust.”

A Country of Illegals

My grandmother, Lillie Mae Wilkett Pruitt, a mixed-blood Cherokee

You may want to argue with me on this, but I think more than 99 percent of Americans are here illegally. This is based on the 2010 census, which found less than one percent of Americans are full-blood Native Americans. Technically, I believe they are the only ones who have the undisputed right to be here.

I had to laugh recently when Mitt Romney suggested all illegal citizens should self-deport. By my definition, Mr. Romney, along with hundreds of millions of Americans, would have to go.

I can already hear the objections. You think you’re not an illegal because you were born in the U.S. or because your ancestors came here legally. But that’s because there’s a huge dirty secret in U.S. immigration law.

Immigration law assumes that if your control a country, you have the right to control who enters, and who gets to stay permanently. But if you apply this concept historically, it’s the Native Americans, who were here first, who should have had the right to control immigration. So, to be here legally, you would have to have the permission of these people who were in control of the country until just a few hundred years ago.

To my knowledge, nobody has an entry visa from a Native American tribe. Not the Pilgrims, not the founding fathers, nor none of the flood of immigrants who have come to our shores. If they came here without the permission of the people who owned the country, they came here illegally.

Might doesn’t make right. Just because Europeans had superior weapons, that didn’t give them the right to trample on the rights of the Native Americans to control who got to be here.

But that’s what happened, of course. In fact, I believe the genocide of Native Americans was the most shameful act in American history. In Dee Brown’s classic book, Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee, there is a long list of tribes which have not one surviving member.

But I digress. That’s another blog entirely.

Most Americans were born here. They’re 100 percent certain there’s nothing morally or ethically wrong with their being here. I disagree, even though I’m in that group.

Look at it this way. Suppose you want something somebody else owns but they won’t let you have it. So you start thinking about just taking it by force, stealing it. If you went to a cop and asked if that would be all right, he’d surely say no, that’s not right. But if you asked a thief the same question, he’d probably be good with it.

And that’s what happened. Many Americans, including myself, are descended from people who stole the country from Native Americans. In my eyes, the thieves didn’t have, and still don’t have, the moral standing to decide who gets to live here. Only Native Americans should have possessed that privilege.

The well was poisoned right from the start, but I’d bet nearly all Americans have drank the Kool-Aid made from the poisoned water and think it tastes just fine. It doesn’t. It stinks of an old hypocrisy that now seems to be completely acceptable.

Then you have the mixed-bloods. Like about 5 million Americans, I’m one of them, part Cherokee. Talk about cognitive dissonance. One group of my ancestors slaughtered and exiled another group of my ancestors.

But if any group except for full-blood Native Americans have the right to be here, the mixed-bloods have the best claim. At least some of their ancestors have been here for thousands of years. No person who doesn’t have Native American blood can make that claim.

Ten percent of White Americans and 5 percent of Black Americans have some quantum of Native American blood. Even if you include them as legit, about 88 percent of the population has none.

What’s the upshot of all this? I know nothing will really change. I don’t expect anybody to go back to where their ancestors came from over the angst and guilt of this. But it would be nice to acknowledge that the right of most Americans to be here is shaky at best.

And the next time you want to get on your high horse about the estimated 10 million people in the U.S. who have been declared to be here illegally, you might want to think about this.

Maybe you shouldn’t be here either.