Reconsider Columbus Day

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Reconsider Columbus Day
By Aisha Brown
Progressive Examiner
Columbus Day, Monday, October 12, 2009

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At 11 a.m. today, October 12, 2009, the United States government honors and celebrates the achievements of Christopher Columbus along with the Embassies Italy and Spain by laying a national wreath laying at the base of the Columbus Memorial Statue located at Union Station at Massachusetts Avenue & 1st Street in Washington, D.C.  Widely regarded as the founder of America, Christopher Columbus received national recognition for contribution to the U.S. when October 12 (which later was changed to the second Monday in October) was officially declared a federal holiday in 1934.

A hero to some and a villain to others, how often do we take the time to examine who was Christopher Columbus?  What his true legacy in the Americas and to whose expense we celebrate his “discovery?”

For many in the United States, Columbus Day is just another holiday.  It is a time to spend with family and friends, an opportunity to take a short vacation, an extra day of rest from a long work week, or it is the last chance for a barbecue before winter.  But for others, it is a sharp and painful reminder that history has betrayed and forgotten the contributions of their people, the lives lost, and a rich culture that pre-dated colonization.

From the moment a sailor aboard the Pinta sighted land from the sea, on October 12, 1492, the course of indigenous history was forever changed. Upon landing on what is now the Bahamas, once known as Guanahani, Columbus encountered indigenous peoples of the Lucayan, Taíno or Arawak, nations.  Peaceful and friendly, Columbus and his Spanish explorers manipulated their hospitality and mercilessly slaughtered, enslaved, and stole lands in the name of the Spanish crown.  He wrote of them in his journal, “They ought to make good and skilled servants, for they repeat very quickly whatever we say to them.”

In his four voyages to the Americas, traveling extensively throughout the Caribbean and Central America, each voyage became more deadly than the first.  Within two years of his initial landing historians estimate that half of what is believed to have been 250,000 Taino people were massacred. Remaining survivors were either sold into European slavery, forced to mine gold for the Spaniards in the Americas, and many later died of disease.

Even after Columbus’ death, the brutality he implemented on the island of Hispañola (now the Dominican Republic and Haiti) endured.  By 1550, only a few hundred Taino remained in Hispañola and in Mexico and estimated indigenous population of 25 million was decimated to 1 million by 1605.

This drastic decrease in the indigenous populations of the Americas, later brought about the trans-Atlantic African slave trade, and was followed by indentured Chinese labor after slavery’s abolition.  The thirst of cheap labor and the blood of the indigenous, Africans, and Chinese, still stain the soil that is the foundation of development in the New World.

However, this is not the history that is taught in schools throughout the United States.  Our children do not learn of the brutality of the explorers, of Native American history and its traditions, nor do we pay homage the cultures that ruled for centuries before Columbus’ arrival.  Instead every second Monday of every October of every year, we give our youth a day off to remember and reflect on the “accomplishments” of Christopher Columbus, a nautical pioneer, explorer and a man who ordered the murder and enslavement of thousands.

Despite the 1990 Congressional resolution designating November as National American Indian Heritage Month, we have yet honor the indigenous peoples of the Americas with a national holiday.  How many of us even recognize and/or celebrate American Indian Heritage Month annually?

What we have failed to realize in the United States is that Native American history is our history.  If we are to call ourselves “Americans” we must honor and respect the first peoples of the Americas.  So on this day, let us reconsider why we celebrate Columbus Day and not Indigenous People’s Day.

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Columbus Day – As Rape Rules Africa And American Churches Embrace Violent ‘Christian’ Video Games
By Thom Hartmann
Common Dreams
Columbus Day, Monday, October 8, 2007

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“Gold is most excellent; gold constitutes treasure; and he who has it does all he wants in the world, and can even lift souls up to Paradise.” — Christopher Columbus, 1503 letter to the king and queen of Spain.

“Christopher Columbus not only opened the door to a New World, but also set an example for us all by showing what monumental feats can be accomplished through perseverance and faith.” — George H.W. Bush, 1989 speech

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If you fly over the country of Haiti on the island of Hispaniola, the island on which Columbus landed, it looks like somebody took a blowtorch and burned away anything green. Even the ocean around the port capital of Port au Prince is choked for miles with the brown of human sewage and eroded topsoil. From the air, it looks like a lava flow spilling out into the sea.

The history of this small island is, in many ways, a microcosm for what’s happening in the whole world.

When Columbus first landed on Hispaniola in 1492, virtually the entire island was covered by lush forest. The Taino “Indians” who loved there had an apparently idyllic life prior to Columbus, from the reports left to us by literate members of Columbus’s crew such as Miguel Cuneo.

When Columbus and his crew arrived on their second visit to Hispaniola, however, they took captive about two thousand local villagers who had come out to greet them. Cuneo wrote: “When our caravels… where to leave for Spain, we gathered…one thousand six hundred male and female persons of those Indians, and these we embarked in our caravels on February 17, 1495…For those who remained, we let it be known (to the Spaniards who manned the island’s fort) in the vicinity that anyone who wanted to take some of them could do so, to the amount desired, which was done.”

Cuneo further notes that he himself took a beautiful teenage Carib girl as his personal slave, a gift from Columbus himself, but that when he attempted to have sex with her, she “resisted with all her strength.” So, in his own words, he “thrashed her mercilessly and raped her.”

While Columbus once referred to the Taino Indians as cannibals, a story made up by Columbus — which is to this day still taught in some US schools — to help justify his slaughter and enslavement of these people. He wrote to the Spanish monarchs in 1493: “It is possible, with the name of the Holy Trinity, to sell all the slaves which it is possible to sell…Here there are so many of these slaves, and also brazilwood, that although they are living things they are as good as gold…”

Columbus and his men also used the Taino as sex slaves: it was a common reward for Columbus’ men for him to present them with local women to rape. As he began exporting Taino as slaves to other parts of the world, the sex-slave trade became an important part of the business, as Columbus wrote to a friend in 1500: “A hundred castellanoes (a Spanish coin) are as easily obtained for a woman as for a farm, and it is very general and there are plenty of dealers who go about looking for girls; those from nine to ten (years old) are now in demand.”

However, the Taino turned out not to be particularly good workers in the plantations that the Spaniards and later the French established on Hispaniola: they resented their lands and children being taken, and attempted to fight back against the invaders. Since the Taino where obviously standing in the way of Spain’s progress, Columbus sought to impose discipline on them. For even a minor offense, an Indian’s nose or ear was cut off, se he could go back to his village to impress the people with the brutality the Spanish were capable of. Columbus attacked them with dogs, skewered them with pikes, and shot them.

Eventually, life for the Taino became so unbearable that, as Pedro de Cordoba wrote to King Ferdinand in a 1517 letter, “As a result of the sufferings and hard labor they endured, the Indians choose and have chosen suicide. Occasionally a hundred have committed mass suicide. The women, exhausted by labor, have shunned conception and childbirth… Many, when pregnant, have taken something to abort and have aborted. Others after delivery have killed their children with their own hands, so as not to leave them in such oppressive slavery.”

Eventually, Columbus and later his brother Bartholomew Columbus who he left in charge of the island, simply resorted to wiping out the Taino altogether. Prior to Columbus’ arrival, some scholars place the population of Haiti/Hispaniola (now at 16 million) at around 1.5 to 3 million people. By 1496, it was down to 1.1 million, according to a census done by Bartholomew Columbus. By 1516, the indigenous population was 12,000, and according to Las Casas (who were there) by 1542 fewer than 200 natives were alive. By 1555, every single one was dead.

This wasn’t just the story of Hispaniola; the same has been done to indigenous peoples worldwide. Slavery, apartheid, and the entire concept of conservative Darwinian Economics, have been used to justify continued suffering by masses of human beings.

Dr. Jack Forbes, Professor of Native American Studies at the University of California at Davis and author of the brilliant book “Columbus and Other Cannibals,” uses the Native American word wétiko (pronounced WET-ee-ko) to describe the collection of beliefs that would produce behavior like that of Columbus. Wétiko literally means “cannibal,” and Forbes uses it quite intentionally to describe these standards of culture: we “eat” (consume) other humans by destroying them, destroying their lands, taking their natural resources, and consuming their life-force by enslaving them either physically or economically. The story of Columbus and the Taino is just one example.

We live in a culture that includes the principle that if somebody else has something we need, and they won’t give it to us, and we have the means to kill them to get it, it’s not unreasonable to go get it, using whatever force we need to.

In the United States, the first “Indian war” in New England was the “Pequot War of 1636,” in which colonists surrounded the largest of the Pequot villages, set it afire as the sun began to rise, and then performed their duty: they shot everybody — men, women, children, and the elderly — who tried to escape. As Puritan colonist William Bradford described the scene: “It was a fearful sight to see them thus frying in the fire and the streams of blood quenching the same, and horrible was the stink and scent thereof; but the victory seemed a sweet sacrifice, and they [the colonists] gave praise therof to God, who had wrought so wonderfully…”

The Narragansetts, up to that point “friends” of the colonists, were so shocked by this example of European-style warfare that they refused further alliances with the whites. Captain John Underhill ridiculed the Narragansetts for their unwillingness to engage in genocide, saying Narragansett wars with other tribes were “more for pastime, than to conquer and subdue enemies.”

In that, Underhill was correct: the Narragansett form of war, like that of most indigenous Older Culture peoples, and almost all Native American tribes, does not have extermination of the opponent as a goal. After all, neighbors are necessary to trade with, to maintain a strong gene pool through intermarriage, and to insure cultural diversity. Most tribes wouldn’t even want the lands of others, because they would have concerns about violating or entering the sacred or spirit-filled areas of the other tribes. Even the killing of “enemies” is not most often the goal of tribal “wars”: It’s most often to fight to some pre-determined measure of “victory” such as seizing a staff, crossing a particular line, or the first wounding or surrender of the opponent.

This wétiko type of theft and warfare is practiced daily by farmers and ranchers worldwide against wolves, coyotes, insects, animals and trees of the rainforest; and against indigenous tribes living in the jungles and rainforests. It is our way of life. It comes out of our foundational cultural notions.

So it should not surprise us that with the doubling of the world’s population over the past 37 years has come an explosion of violence and brutality, and as the United States runs low on oil, we are now fighting wars in oil-rich parts of the world. It shouldn’t surprise us that our churches are using violent “kill the infidels” video games to lure in children, while in parts of Africa contaminated by our culture and rich in oil (Congo) rape has become so widespread as to make the front page of yesterday’s New York Times.

These are all dimensions, after all, our history, which we celebrate on Columbus Day. But if we wake up, and we help the world wake up, it need not be our future.

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Excerpted and slightly edited from “The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight: The Fate of the World and What We Can Do Before It’s Too Late,” a book by Thom Hartmann <http:// www.thomhartmann.com> which helped inspire Leonardo DiCaprio’s new movie The 11th Hour. Hartmann’s most recent book is Cracking The Code: How to Win Hearts, Change Minds, and Restore America’s Original Vision.

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Mawkish, Maybe. But Avatar Is A Profound, Insightful, Important Film

CAMERON’S BLOCKBUSTER OFFERS A CHILLING METAPHOR FOR EUROPEAN BUTCHERY OF THE AMERICAS. NO WONDER THE US RIGHT HATES IT.

By George Monbiot
The Guardian
January 11, 2010

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Avatar, James Cameron’s blockbusting 3D film, is both profoundly silly and profound. It’s profound because, like most films about aliens, it is a metaphor for contact between different human cultures. But in this case the metaphor is conscious and precise: this is the story of European engagement with the native peoples of the Americas. It’s profoundly silly because engineering a happy ending demands a plot so stupid and predictable that it rips the heart out of the film. The fate of the native Americans is much closer to the story told in another new film, The Road, in which a remnant population flees in terror as it is hunted to extinction.

But this is a story no one wants to hear, because of the challenge it presents to the way we choose to see ourselves. Europe was massively enriched by the genocides in the Americas; the American nations were founded on them. This is a history we cannot accept.

In his book American Holocaust, the US scholar David Stannard documents the greatest acts of genocide the world has ever experienced. In 1492, some 100 million native people lived in the Americas. By the end of the 19th century almost all of them had been exterminated. Many died as a result of disease, but the mass extinction was also engineered.

When the Spanish arrived in the Americas, they described a world which could scarcely have been more different to their own. Europe was ravaged by war, oppression, slavery, fanaticism, disease and starvation. The populations they encountered were healthy, well-nourished and mostly (with exceptions like the Aztecs and Incas) peaceable, democratic and egalitarian. Throughout the Americas the earliest explorers, including Columbus, remarked on the natives’ extraordinary hospitality. The conquistadores marvelled at the amazing roads, canals, buildings and art they found, which in some cases outstripped anything they had seen at home. None of this stopped them destroying everything and everyone they encountered.

The butchery began with Columbus. He slaughtered the native people of Hispaniola (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic) by unimaginably brutal means. His soldiers tore babies from their mothers and dashed their heads against rocks. They fed their dogs on living children. On one occasion they hung 13 Indians in honour of Christ and the 12 disciples, on a gibbet just low enough for their toes to touch the ground, then disembowelled them and burnt them alive. Columbus ordered all the native people to deliver a certain amount of gold every three months; anyone who failed had his hands cut off. By 1535 the native population of Hispaniola had fallen from eight million to zero: partly as a result of disease, partly due to murder, overwork and starvation.

The conquistadores spread this civilising mission across central and south America. When they failed to reveal where their mythical treasures were hidden, the indigenous people were flogged, hanged, drowned, dismembered, ripped apart by dogs, buried alive or burnt. The soldiers cut off women’s breasts, sent people back to their villages with their severed hands and noses hung round their necks and hunted them with dogs for sport. But most were killed by enslavement and disease. The Spanish discovered that it was cheaper to work the native Americans to death and replace them than to keep them alive: the life expectancy in their mines and plantations was three to four months. Within a century of their arrival, about 95% of the population of South and Central America were dead.

In California during the 18th century the Spanish systematised this extermination. A Franciscan missionary called Junípero Serra set up a series of “missions”: in reality concentration camps using slave labour. The native people were herded in under force of arms and made to work in the fields on one fifth of the calories fed to African American slaves in the 19th century. They died from overwork, starvation and disease at astonishing rates, and were continually replaced, wiping out the indigenous populations. Junípero Serra, the Eichmann of California, was beatified by the Vatican in 1988. He now requires one more miracle to be pronounced a saint.

While the Spanish were mostly driven by the lust for gold, the British who colonised North America wanted land. In New England they surrounded the villages of the native Americans and murdered them as they slept. As genocide spread westwards, it was endorsed at the highest levels. George Washington ordered the total destruction of the homes and land of the Iroquois. Thomas Jefferson declared that his nation’s wars with the Indians should be pursued until each tribe “is exterminated or is driven beyond the Mississippi”. During the Sand Creek massacre of 1864, troops in Colorado slaughtered unarmed people gathered under a flag of peace, killing children and babies, mutilating all the corpses and keeping their victims’ genitals to use as tobacco pouches or to wear on their hats. Theodore Roosevelt called this event “as rightful and beneficial a deed as ever took place on the frontier”.

The butchery hasn’t yet ended: last month the Guardian reported that ­Brazilian ranchers in the western Amazon, having slaughtered all the rest, tried to kill the last surviving member of a forest tribe. Yet the greatest acts of genocide in history scarcely ruffle our collective conscience. Perhaps this is what would have happened had the Nazis won the second world war: the Holocaust would have been denied, excused or minimised in the same way, even as it continued. The people of the nations responsible — Spain, Britain, the US and others — will tolerate no comparisons, but the final solutions pursued in the Americas were far more successful. Those who commissioned or endorsed them remain national or religious heroes. Those who seek to prompt our memories are ignored or condemned.

This is why the right hates Avatar. In the neocon Weekly Standard, John Podhoretz complains that the film resembles a “revisionist western” in which “the Indians became the good guys and the Americans the bad guys”. He says it asks the audience “to root for the defeat of American soldiers at the hands of an insurgency”. Insurgency is an interesting word for an attempt to resist invasion: insurgent, like savage, is what you call someone who has something you want. L’Osservatore Romano, the official newspaper of the Vatican, condemned the film as “just an anti-imperialistic, anti-militaristic parable”.

But at least the right knows what it is attacking. In the New York Times the liberal critic Adam Cohen praises Avatar for championing the need to see clearly. It reveals, he says, “a well-known principle of totalitarianism and genocide — that it is easiest to oppress those we cannot see”. But in a marvellous unconscious irony, he bypasses the crashingly obvious metaphor and talks instead about the light it casts on Nazi and Soviet atrocities. We have all become skilled in the art of not seeing.

I agree with its rightwing critics that Avatar is crass, mawkish and cliched. But it speaks of a truth more important — and more dangerous — than those contained in a thousand arthouse movies.

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