Jacqueline Keeler in Native Condition. Discussion »
On Monday, I sent my son to school on what would have been a holiday called Columbus Day when I was his age. I checked the school district website several times to be sure, but yes, it was just a normal school day. Despite being an "Indian”, as he called us, the sudden disappearance of a holiday dedicated to him left me feeling conflicted. As a child, when I first heard the rhyme, “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue” in kindergarten I had been deeply moved by the image of him braving the unknown in his small, wooden boat wearing a skirt and tights with high heels, willing to possibly sail off the edge of the world into the unknown assisted only by a crew of mutinous sailors who lost faith in him and were preparing to throw him overboard just as land was sighted.
It was my mother, a Navajo, who helped me understand more fully what Christopher Columbus meant. At home washing dishes, she explained how his arrival heralded the beginning of an invasion of our lands and she told me about Hweeldi, the Long Walk where the U.S. force marched Navajo people to a concentration camp. I could feel in the rhythm of her crisp and measured Navajo-accented voice her distress as she wiped the dishes with greater ferocity and bubbles went flying through the air, some landing on me, anointing me with that hard won knowledge my family had learned. I came to understand that this country for which I placed my tiny hand over my heart each day and swore, “with liberty and justice for all” was actually a country built upon the theft of my ancestor’s lands and freedom. I was only 5 years old, but my feelings towards Columbus had turned from respect to a sort burning rage any yes, hurt.
She did not at that time, of course, go into Columbus’ more horrific acts. He wrote chillingly in his journal on October 14, 1492, just three days after being greeted with kindness by the Lucayan people, “I could conquer the whole of them with fifty men and govern them as I pleased.” But how do you tell young children the truth about the exploits of this man? Is there a polite way of explaining that in his grasping quest for gold he ordered the cutting off the hands of Indians in Cicao who did not bring him enough tribute of gold every three months? That he had them wear their hands around their necks and 10,000 died handless? How 40,000 were shipped to Spain to be sold in the slave markets of Seville? Or how those that remained were worked to death? How do you tell children that in 1500 he wrote just eight years after he arrived, “A hundred castellanoes 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 are now in demand.” How Indians, both babies and adults were used as dog food, sometimes fed alive to the Spaniards’ dogs. Within two years 250,000 people in Haiti were dead, some due to suicide with mothers taking their children’s lives before taking their own. How? The answer is obvious, you don’t tell children these stories about what happened after he stepped off the boat in the Bahamas. My elementary school teachers end the lesson on an upbeat note with the map of the world being completed and the sphere the proper shape of the Earth not flat all thanks to the incredible courage and foresight of Columbus. These terrible truths could be confronted when I was older, but one wonders why we had to learn about the man in such heroic terms if so much about him had to be hidden.
It was then that I began to feel my dual identity and grapple with it. An identity both as an “American” and as a members of my Native Nation. This sorrow and anger, still experienced as an almost physical pain by my mother and now, me is how the story of Columbus’ “discovery” still affects us—those who he misnamed “Indians.” Even those who lived faraway like the Navajo and have never seen the Caribbean. It is a dual identity that is not understood at all by the rest of America—not even by the Justices of the United State Supreme Court. In the recent Supreme Court case Adoptive Girl vs Adoptive Parents in June, Justice Alito opened his decision written for the majority with the statement, “This case is about a little girl (Baby Girl) who is classified as an Indian because she is 1.2% (3/256) Cherokee.” Despite the fact that eligibility for citizenship in the Cherokee Nation is not based on blood quantum. This misapprehension that citizenship in a Tribe is nothing but a racial classification and thus is racist has gained currency in recent years.
Ordinary Americans voiced their opinions in the same Supreme Court case in the comment sections of online articles, convinced they could judge the Adoptive Girl’s “Cherokee-ness” simply by her percentage of Indian blood and how she looked. Never mind, that she was 100% Cherokee just like they were 100% American. After all, you are either a citizen of a country or you are not. But this peculiar American obsession with classifying people as “mixed-blood” or “pure blood”, “black” or “white” is as natural to most Americans as the air they breath. They do not understand that Tribes are nations that persist despite 500 years of invasion. They only understand Tribes in the context of unfair money-making schemes (i.e. casinos) or an undeserved play for more rights than any other ethnic group.
posted October 17, 2013 11:50 am edt