- Caleb Walsh illustration
Sometimes I think about Hitler and the ethnic cleansing that occurred in Europe. It hurts my heart to imagine the pain, suffering, and loss at the hands of such a monster. They say that approximately 6 million Jews were killed during the Holocaust. Six million humans were destroyed because of ignorance, hate and lack of humanity. Take a moment to imagine it. Now can you imagine the survivors, descendants and families of the victims being asked to celebrate a holiday in honor of Hitler?
You can't imagine it? Does it make you sick, thinking of any modern society doing that to the Jewish people? It makes me sick. It makes me want to rage at the idea. What a horrible thought: The survivors of one of the largest ethnic cleansings in history having to "celebrate" the life of their killer, their oppressor, their hunter, their nightmare. I just can't imagine it.
And yet, as a modern society, we ask the First Nations people in America to celebrate the life of the man whose deeds led to the eradication and genocide of upward of 50 million people (and that's the conservative estimate). Christopher Columbus' arrival in the Americas was the cataclysmic event that led to the largest genocide known to human history.
So why is it OK for the one, but is unimaginable for the other? I've asked myself this question many times. Sometimes I justify it with excuses of ignorance and an education system that lacks perspective and facts. Sometimes I shrug it off and ignore it, because it's so much easier to pretend that it doesn't matter to me and the almost 5.2 million other Native American/Alaskan Native people in the U.S. But most of the time, I just can't understand the callous treatment of our First People.
No, I get it. Every child raised in the public school system has been taught to worship and proudly proclaim Columbus as a hero because he "discovered" the New World. The reality, as we know, is that there were whole civilizations already here, and other European explorers had made landfall centuries earlier. And remember: Columbus was not even trying to get to the Americas; his job was to find a route to the East Indies for easier commerce. He failed completely in that regard. But he thought that he had reached India; hence, why we refer to the indigenous people of the Americas as "Indians." That misnomer has stuck.
And now, banks close and the mail carriers get a holiday to glorify the man who failed to make it to India, misnamed millions of people and more than 500 different tribes, and served as the tipping point in the eradication, enslavement, murder and abuse of those people.
Both the cities of Seattle and Minneapolis, among others, have elected to celebrate Indigenous People's Day instead. It's refreshing to know that there are people out there who care about the truth of Columbus' legacy, and want to honor our First Nations people in a real and authentic way. Sure, I'd love for the federal government to follow suit. It's doubtful, but I can hope.
I can also hope that the mayor and city council of Spokane see the value in celebrating our First Nations people. Hint, Hint. Continuing to celebrate Columbus is a sign that we still have work to do regarding race relations in America. ♦
Tara Dowd, an enrolled Inupiaq Eskimo, was born into poverty and is a survivor of the child welfare system. She now owns a diversity consulting business, and is an advocate for systemic equity and a believer in justice as a force that makes communities better.