Article on the Columbus Quincentennial
Celebrating 500 years of Oppression
by Christopher Komuves
This year will mark the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus's "discovery" of America. With characteristic nationalism and pride, the people of the United States will soon celebrate this national landmark. But how can one say that Columbus was the first person to discover America when about 40 million people already lived here? The answer is that you can't, unless you don't consider those who were already here to be people. If you only consider white Europeans as counting as people, then there's no problem.
Europeans have historically held this view. When the Spanish invaded this continent, they did not consider the native peoples they conquered to be human. They would shoot and kill them for sport, not considering it to be murder, but rather like hunting big game. It took a Vatican proclamation suggesting that they might be human and thus that God might punish them for these murders to get the Spanish to stop. Not that they treated them with any great respect afterwards--now native peoples were elevated to the status of mere pagan savages with false ideas of religion and culture. The Spanish and other Europeans tried to rectify this by forcefully indoctrinating them with Christianity.
Native lands were taken by fraud and by force. The conquerors thought themselves destined by God to spread across the continent. They even had what they saw as proof of God's favor. As they entered into new lands, the inhabitants would die in vast numbers, being overcome by great epidemics of smallpox, tuberculosis, measles and other diseases. The Europeans thought that this was surely the hand of God clearing away the savages to make room for His loyal followers. Few Europeans realized that they were bringing in diseases that did not previously exist in the New World and that native peoples had no resistance to. Millions of people died from these European diseases. Later, some Europeans did realize the toll that these diseases took on the indigenous peoples. In some instances whites traded blankets used by diseased people to natives in order to infect them with an epidemic of a fatal disease to kill them off. Such were the practices of some of those who proclaimed themselves to be on the side of God.
Columbus himself enslaved native populations and practiced his rule with bitter cruelty and brutality. Through his actions, both directly and indirectly, he was responsible for countless deaths and immense suffering. Should this be honored? Do we as a nation represent such values as conquest and subjugation of the less powerful (or more trusting), as slavery, merciless domination, and acting without honor or conscience? I don't want to think so, but the evidence for this as an historical truth is compelling.
Since I'm discussing anniversaries, let me bring up another one that has recently passed. December 29, 1990 was the Centennial of the Wounded Knee Massacre. In 1890, many Native Americans, including the Lakota, had begun to follow a new pacifistic religion called the Ghost Dance, which was based on the vision of a Paiute prophet named Wovoka. They believed that God would come back to the earth and restore the old order of things, including the buffalo and the Indian nations. The European peoples (whom the Lakota called "long knives") who were evil would be buried beneath the earth--all they had to do was to be upright and moral and not promote any further violence against the whites or anyone else. God would right the injustices, they only had to have faith.
The European Americans would not tolerate this movement. The U.S. government identified certain Indian leaders as "fomenters of disturbances," and sent soldiers to stop them. In the winter of 1890, when the followers of a leader named Sitting Bull tried to prevent his arrest, reservation police shot him dead in his home. This threw the Lakota into a panic. Fearing for their lives, about 350 Lakota from the Oglala band fled with chief Big Foot to join another group of Ghost Dance followers led by Red Cloud on the Pine Ridge Reservation. After traveling 150 miles on horseback and by foot, they were surrounded by U.S. soldiers. Chief Big Foot, who was dying of pneumonia, ran up a white flag and surrendered. They were forced to camp for the night by Wounded Knee Creek, surrounded by the cavalry. They were searched and all of their weapons were taken.
On the following morning of December 29, 1890, the Lakota were ordered to assemble in a low area surrounded on all four sides by soldiers armed with their new Hotchkiss machine guns. The soldiers fired upon the people below, slaughtering most of them in a hail of bullets. Some U.S. soldiers were killed by their own comrades, since they were formed into a "box formation" around the people they killed. Those that got away were mostly hunted down and killed. Unarmed pregnant women, small children, people who willingly came forward trusting that they would be spared--it made no difference, all were mercilessly gunned down.
Knowing about this event is very disturbing to me. It is reminiscent of accounts of atrocities committed by the Nazis in World War II, for which those war criminals who could be found were tried and executed with the backing of the entire world. Of course, this was the U.S. government and 100 years really isn't all that long ago. If you aren't thoroughly disgusted by this, I'll tell you how our government punished these criminals--they did not! Instead, they awarded six Congressional Medals of Honor to those who took part in murdering these people.
About 150 of the dead were piled into a mass grave. There was a blizzard that night, and on the following day white photographers came and propped up the frozen dead body of Chief Big Foot to take pictures. The government never made any retribution for the massacre. In fact, they publicized it as a great battle to try to hide the truth.
In 1973, Wounded Knee again became the stage for dispute between the U.S. government and Native Americans. Members of the American Indian Movement (AIM) took over the hamlet of Wounded Knee after a series of events took place at the Pine Ridge Lakota Reservation in South Dakota. Traditional tribal leaders had tried to impeach their tribal chairman, Dick Wilson. But Wilson was backed by the U.S. government who funded a special tribal police force which was used to intimidate anyone who opposed him. The Lakota referred to these so-called police as "the goon squad." During the several years in which the goon squad was active, they were responsible for at least 60 murders in drive-by shootings. They would drive by a house in which there was an AIM member or sympathizer (often around dinner time), and fire into the house with automatic weapons. The FBI even supplied them with armor piercing bullets that would penetrate through brick walls. Wilson was allowed to preside over his own impeachment hearing, which he delayed for a week while U.S. Special Operations Group (SOG) troops entered the reservation and set up machine guns on rooftops and trained the goon squad in "anti-riot" tactics. Despite this, the tribal council voted to put Wilson on trial. He appointed his own judge and fixed the trial.
In desperation and to try to attract national attention for their plight, AIM faced off against FBI agents, state police, the goon squad and national guardsmen for more than two months while they were under siege. AIM members and FBI agents were killed in the fighting. AIM finally surrendered, but many reprisals were taken against them within the next few years. One prominent AIM leader, Leonard Peltier, was tried and convicted for murdering two FBI agents. The FBI forged the ballistics report that stated that the bullets that killed the agents were from his rifle. The real report, later obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, proved that Peltier did not kill the agents. The prime witness in the case was a woman who had a history of severe emotional disorders and who had been institutionalized. She was coerced into testifying and later admitted that she was never even present when the killings took place. More than 50 members of Congress have petitioned the Supreme Court to re-try the case, but the request has been denied. Peltier is still serving a life sentence for murders that he did not commit.
Even in this decade, there has been large scale conflict with Native Americans. Beginning in April of 1990, the Mohawk, who are part of the Iroquois Confederacy, or Haudenosaunee, faced off against Canadian and Quebec police and military forces. The Canadians tried to expand Oka's community golf course onto sacred Mohawk burial lands and the Kahnesatake Mohawk reacted by setting up barricades to prevent the incursion. On July 12, the Kahnawake Mohawk blockaded Mercier Bridge in support. On August 14th, the Catholic School Commission voted to ban Mohawk children from returning to school in September. The Mohawk tried to negotiate, but the Canadian government refused to listen and broke off negotiations on August 26th. On August 27th, Quebec broke off all negotiations and increased the number of troops outside the two reserves to 4,000. Armored personnel carriers, grenade launchers, rocket launchers and tanks lined up outside the reservation. The army announced that it planned to move into the reservation and a bloodbath seemed imminent. The Cree Nation pledged that they would consider any attack on the Mohawk to be an act of war against the Cree. The following day a convoy of 60 cars leaving Kahnawake for safety was stoned by between 250 and 500 protesters as the Surete' du Quebec (S.Q.) watched.
The Canadians cut off all supplies of food and medicine to the reservation. On September 2nd, Joe Armstrong, a 71 year old man who was a victim of this stoning, died due to injuries he received when he tried to leave the reservation so that he could get medication for his heart ailment. People who were arrested were tortured by the police and returned with cigarette burns and other mutilations. The warriors, although they were outnumbered 20 to 1, refused to surrender and stated that they would rather die. On September 3rd at around 6:00 pm, the Canadian Army and the S.Q. moved into Kahnawake from four directions. They converged on the Longhouse, the spiritual center of the reservation. Mohawk women linked arms to prevent them from entering. One soldier shouted, "Get out of the way or I'll mow you down." They used rifle butts against the women. Broken ribs, jaws and elbows and torn clothes were reported by witnesses. On the 8th, a Mohawk behind the lines at Kahnesatake was brutally beaten around five in the morning by four army officers who were reconnoitering at the time. Two of the soldiers suffered superficial knife wounds.
Two reservation police were arrested by the S.Q. for carrying "illegal" weapons--their handguns which they were trained and licensed for by Canadian authorities and which they had been using to police Kahnawake for twenty years. The army cut phone and fax lines and the water pipes. They also got a court order to prevent all phone communication by the press, which was a direct violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom. The army sent in combat helicopters on September 19th and released two barrages of tear gas. Seventy-five native people required hospital care.
The other nations in the Iroquois Confederacy sent delegations to lend support. Their peaceful encampment was surrounded by razor wire. Floodlights were shined into their tents and helicopters were flown low overhead to prevent them from sleeping. Their food and ceremonial items were destroyed or confiscated and the S.Q. sent agitators into the Peace Camp to try to provoke them to riot.
Mohawk stores were looted by soldiers. One Mohawk told me of how a Mohawk woman was forced to disrobe and was molested by soldiers. The Canadians were trying to force the Mohawk to fight back--by humiliating them, attacking them, and sending agitators to incite them. This would give the army an excuse for a massacre--which they would most certainly declare to be an act of national defense, if it was publicized at all. The European press followed events as well as was possible. On August 27th the CBC radio declared in Europe: "Canada (Quebec) has become the South Africa of the 1990's." The Haudenosaunee and others sent out appeals to the United Nations, Cardinal John O'Connor, Rev. Jesse Jackson and others, but none would get involved publicly.
While all of this was happening, there was virtually no press coverage in the United States. The U.S. also had a lot to gain by weakening or eliminating the Iroquois. As for the Canadians, both the Meech Lake Accord and the $25 billion Hydro-Quebec James Bay II Project, which would flood the entire land base that the Inuit and Cree depend on, were being fought by the Mohawk. For quite some time it appeared as if a massacre was inevitable and so the Mohawk warriors quietly prepared themselves for death. In the end, the Mohawk surrendered. Their leaders decided that it was better to live than to fight without hope for what rightfully belonged to them.
Native Americans still do not have equality. According to a 1989 Senate report, 45% of all reservation Indians live below the poverty line, 16% of these homes lack electricity, 21% are without an indoor toilet, and 56% have no telephone. The 1980 Census reported that the median family income for American Indians was $13,680 vs. $19,920 for all U.S. families--a 31% difference. Currently, only 7.7% of all Native Americans have earned college degrees, compared with 16.2% for all Americans. The 1990 Census stated that African-Americans make up 12.4% of the population, Hispanics 8%, and Asian Americans 2.6%. Native Americans make up only 0.7% of the total U.S. population, perhaps not enough to be considered politically important and thus not worth caring about. At least other minority groups make up a large enough portion of the population to be heard more often, though still not enough.
It astonishes me that people today still mask the truth with a less disturbing facade. The Europeans came to the New World after it had been populated for more than 20,000 years by other peoples. They did not discover it. Europeans invaded the continent and overpowered the native warriors with soldiers and superior weapons, as well as with lies and deceit. They did not peacefully explore and settle it. And anyway, Columbus was not even the first European to visit the New World. The Vikings explored coastal areas of North America prior to 1000 AD. They even recorded having skirmishes with native peoples whom they called Skraelings. Columbus himself had heard tales about a settlement on this continent established by Brendan, a 6th century Irish monk. He was convinced that he had merely reached the East Indies by an Atlantic route, and this mistake was never fully rectified in our language. Thus, even today, the indigenous peoples of the Americas are referred to as "Indians." Our culture is too arrogant to admit its mistakes, if even in the terms it uses to describe people.
Our beginnings as a people and as a country are steeped in blood and dishonor, but this doesn't have to continue. If people would wake up from the fairy tale history that they were taught as part of their indoctrination in elementary school and begin to see things as they really are, perhaps things could really change. Our leaders speak of a "New World Order" and equality, justice and freedom when they're in front of the camera. Then, in the dark, where few people care enough to look, they plunge their long knives into the flesh which their own greed demands as a sacrifice.
Please, when the Columbus Quincentennial is celebrated this year, don't just boycott the celebrations, but protest against them! Think of all of the innocents who were destroyed by him and those like him. If nobody cares, then perhaps we are indeed doomed as a race. But if the spirit of virtue can be rekindled--and this must be an active undertaking--then perhaps we can forge a better future. The ancestors of this generation did some terrible things and nobody stopped them. Lets make the future different--dare to care!______________________________________________________________________________
This article was originally published in The Rutgers Review newspaper on April 16, 1991. It was later updated and re-released to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the invasion of the New World.
Copyright (c)1992 by Christopher Komuves. You are free (and strongly encouraged) to copy and distribute this article in unaltered form.