City of Oberlin Recognizes Indigenous People

Kate Fishman, Managing Editor

When I was in elementary school, my teacher read us Jane Yolen’s Encounter, an illustrated book displaying a Native American child’s perspective on the arrival of the Italian explorer, Christopher Columbus.

Even then, I remember feeling confused. I had learned about Columbus as a man who ventured across the ocean and discovered a new land, but Encounter did not have that familiar tone of joyful new beginnings.

I have since come to realize that while Christopher Columbus brought Europeans to the Americas, to see this colonization as a discovery is to focus on a Eurocentric perspective — it ignores those who were here first. When Columbus and his men arrived, they did not bring an exciting new beginning. Instead, they pillaged goods, ravaged bodies, and overturned the lives of the indigenous peoples of the Americas in what can best be described as a murderous conquest.

Over 500 years later, on Aug. 21, 2017, the Oberlin City Council decided to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day, making Oberlin the first city in Ohio to recognize this new holiday. It is one small step toward mending a history of hate that began with Columbus’ arrival on Oct. 12, 1492.

This recognition could not come at a more crucial moment for the Native American community. According to US News, a quarter of Native Americans are currently living below the poverty line. In 2014, Native peoples were experiencing an unemployment rate of around 11% — double that of the rest of the population. The Dakota Access Pipeline is now being championed by a government that cares more for its economic agenda than the vitality of tribal lands. When non-Native Americans make decisions, the people who were here first are constantly left out of the narrative. This is a trend that started a long time ago.

When Christopher Columbus arrived in what is now the Bahamas in 1492, he was greeted peacefully by a variety of local tribes. He went on to enslave the indigenous peoples in his gold mines for years while his men raped their young daughters. If workers fought back, their limbs would be cut off. Columbus was also the first slave trader in the Americas, contributing to a legacy of institutionalized racism that still prevails in today.

Yet, when the Knights of Columbus — a fraternal organization that has today become representative of the Catholic right — pushed for the establishment of a national Columbus Day in 1934, President Franklin D. Roosevelt conceded. Since then, although Columbus Day is nothing more than a holiday from school and work to many, there is one day a year on which a history of pillaging and murder is celebrated.

But the history of silencing the Native American population is far more widespread than the widely accepted story of Christopher Columbus. Using the misnomer Columbus gave to the native peoples, the Indian Removal Act of 1830 under President Andrew Jackson sent the majority of Native Americans to reservations. Many of them died along the way, and those who didn’t were removed from society and forced into deeply substandard living conditions. Even today, literacy rates are down in these Native American communities while alcoholism is on the rise, and reservations have the highest rate of mental illness in the country. From Columbus’ time to the present day, economic opportunity has outweighed respect for the Native American population.

In 1977, the International NGO Conference on Discrimination Against Indigenous Populations in the Americas posed a crucial question: What are we choosing to honor as a nation? Can we allow Columbus Day to continue to exist?

Defenders of Columbus Day say yes, arguing that the ousting of the holiday is a slap in the faces of Italian Americans, denying them the celebration of their heritage. To them I say that American history is complicated. Having and keeping idols is complicated. Weighing good against bad is certainly complicated, and that is why we need to examine history with a critical eye. If the celebration of one’s heritage endorses the disenfranchisement of an entire people, maybe that heritage should be celebrated with a different icon.

Italian-American heritage cannot be celebrated without acknowledging the fact that the first Italian to set foot in the Americas was a murderer who violently discriminated against the Native populations. Italian-Americans have made many notable contributions to American history, but choosing Christopher Columbus as the emblem of those contributions continues to silence the voices of America’s Indigenous peoples.

As a nation, we must learn. We must be open to the histories of others and do our best to listen to them. We cannot speak for the most marginalized in our society; instead, we must be the conduit that allows them to be heard while we listen.

The residents of Oberlin showed that they listened when City Council renamed the second Monday in October Indigenous Peoples’ Day. It moved to celebrate heritage rather than oppression. Through this piece of legislation, it said, “We hear you. We are listening. And we will try to understand.”