By Jim Scarantino
Scarantino is a journalist, lawyer and former Albuquerque resident who now lives in Port Townsend, Washington. He publishes the Port Townsend Free Press. This article first appeared in the Port Townsend Free Press.
Instead of Columbus Day, the Jefferson County Commission and Port Townsend City Council have decided we should henceforth celebrate and honor slavery, cannibalism, genocide, human sacrifice, endless war, oppression of women and minorities and illiteracy.
That is what Indigenous Peoples Day is all about. We ditch a day that recognized a visionary who saw beyond the horizon and changed the world forever to embrace the cultures and values of the Americas when he and his tiny boats crossed the uncharted Atlantic Ocean.
Columbus gets dumped because he was no saint. In his place our local governments want us to commemorate indigenous cultures that were no better and in many ways far more barbaric, brutal and downright evil.
Slavery was widespread in pre-Columbian America. Columbus did not bring it with him. Pacific Northwest tribes all engaged in slavery and raiding to steal human beings for a lifetime of bondage. Chief Seattle was a cold-blooded slave trader. The Makah raided for slaves up and down the coast and enslaved Russians they took prisoner. The Cherokee kept Black as well as white and Indian slaves. Slavery was so ingrained in Native American cultures it continued even after the Civil War. A display in the Sitka museum shows the U.S. Naval ships that combatted slavery in Alaska for decades after the Emancipation Proclamation ended slavery everywhere else in the U.S. There are confirmed reports of active trade in young slaves among Alaskan natives into the 20th Century. The fight against slavery was a purely European, Christian ideal, based on the belief that men are made in God’s image. It began with a few Catholic priests during the Spanish conquests, such as De la Casas, and later succeeded through the efforts of Englishman William Wilberforce. The belief that no man should be a slave to any other man did not spring from any Native American culture or theology.
Cannibalism was not uncommon when Columbus made landfall. Evidence of the consumption of human flesh has been found at Mesa Verde. The Kalinago peoples of the Carribean basin consumed roasted human flesh, with a preference for the remains of babies and fetuses. Aztec priests made a show of eating human hearts (more will be said on the delightful Aztec, the largest, most “advanced” Native society). Plains Indians ate the livers of their vanquished enemies. Polynesians (Hawaii is part of the celebration) hunted humans for their flesh. Early explorers report having seen human body parts in the boats of Polynesian hunting parties. Captain James Cook was cooked and eaten in a Hawaiian pot luck dinner.
Genocide exterminated the Chimacums. In a raid on the tribe that once inhabited eastern Jefferson County, Chief Seattle’s warriors wiped out an entire people. As reported by an American sailor who was enslaved by a Vancouver Island tribe that lived around present day Tofino, successful wars ended in the slaughter of all the adult men, adolescent boys, the elderly and the infirm. Survivors were taken as slaves and guaranteed harsh and very short lives. And whatever happened to Kennewick man, the Polynesian/Asiatic peoples whose remains have been found along the Pacific Coast of the Americas and the Dorset people who once populated the entire Arctic but whose DNA is not present in any Native American? Genocide has been posited by more than a few anthropologists.
Human Sacrifice was practiced on a massive scale by the Aztecs. They built entire walls and structures with the heads of their victims, both as a religious monument and to terrorize oppressed minorities in their kingdom (who later welcomed Cortez as liberator). Aztecs killed an estimated 84,000 people in a four day ceremony consecrating the great pyramid of Tenochtitlan. Cortez’ men reported the stench of rotting and burning flesh hanging over the city thanks to the daily human sacrifices that needed an infusion of 30,000 victims annually. Further south, the other “advanced” culture of the Americas, the Inca, killed children in religious rituals.
War was constant. Charles C. Mann in 1491: New Revelations of American Before Columbus documents wars that lasted generations and debilitated entire cultures. The Aztecs, Mayans, and Incans waged war to build empires just as the Spaniards did. Graveyard Spit, the thumb pointing south off the larger Dungeness Spit, was the site of a massacre of men, women and children by a band of S’Klallams offended by a visit from neighbors across the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Some tribes gained power and wealth as arms dealers and mercenaries. Civil wars, such as the one that weakened the Incas just as Pizarro arrived, took the lives of tens of thousands.
Oppression of Women and Minorities was the way of all Native American tribes. There was no such thing as women’s rights. And minorities, as already discussed, were fodder for human sacrifice and slavery, if not targeted extinction. Any declaration of basic human rights was a European import.
Illiteracy was the sad fact from the Arctic to Tierra del Fuego. There was no written language among any indigenous people.
These are but a few of the lovely things our local leaders want to celebrate with Indigenous Peoples Day.
Not really. They want to celebrate the good, admirable qualities and practices of Native Americans. And there is much to celebrate, as anyone who has lived around indigenous people knows.
But in a display of double-standards, if not outright bigotry against Italian Americans, our local leaders focus only on the negative aspects of Columbus while completely ignoring the grim realities of the Americas before European colonization and transformation. They mythologize indigenous people as though the centuries of the above-described conduct never occurred. In place of facts, they create a caricature of (trigger warning!) “the noble savage,” the utter fantasy once fashionable among Romantic writers. That myth seems to be enjoying renewed currency.
It is as false as the notion that Native Americans were perfect stewards of the environment, and it was only the Europeans who ravaged Mother Earth. Mann’s 1491 documents the massive manipulation of the natural world by indigenous cultures, some on a landscape scale comparable to the Tennessee Valley Authority. At least one of the great extinction events in North America has been traced to actions by indigenous peoples. They did not have firearms and gun powder, but Native hunters were not restrained in their killing of wildlife. They took as much as they could get when they could get it.
But what about genocide against Native Americans? Tens of millions died. How can we honor the man responsible for that?
There was terrible conflict between Europeans and Native Americans. Europeans came here for land and wealth. Their superior arms, military skills and organization and technology made them the winners. Based on what is known about indigenous societies, and their cruelty and war mongering, there is little reason to believe that had they these advantages they would not have employed them to similar ends. Indeed, they were quick to seek guns, horses and steel, and alliances with armed Europeans, to bring destruction and death to their hereditary enemies.
What caused the horrendous life of Native life more than any weaponry was disease. Indigenous peoples, because of their isolation from the rest of the planet, had not developed immunities against pathogens common in Europe, Asia and Africa. As Mann points out, that tragedy was inevitable. Asian or Arab ships would have brought it had not Columbus arrived first. The Americas could not stay isolated forever.
The Jefferson County Commission and Port Townsend City Council have insulted and displayed disdain for Italian Americans, for whom Columbus Day has been a celebration of their culture, art, cuisine and scientific achievements. It has been a day to celebrate what Italians have acccomplished in this country in spite of the obstacles facing an ethnic, linguistic and religious minority, many of whom came from crushing poverty. The prejudice those earlier generations overcame has risen again. That prejudice, exhibited by overwhelmingly White Anglo-Saxon politicians, is evidenced in their eagerness to focus only on the bad acts of an Italian explorer and visionary, and not his world-changing accomplishments.
If they were plagued by guilt over what happened five hundred years ago, they could move to Europe.
Likewise, Native Americans could show the depth of their commitment to returning the continent to pre-Columbian conditions. They could reject every benefit of European technology, culture and science. No electricity, nothing with wheels, no anti-biotics, no books, no computers or power tools, no outboard motors to help them hunt whales. No pizza.
If you only focus on the bad in people that’s all you will ever see, because that’s all you are looking for.
People, cultures, nations are all imperfect and capable of terrible as well as great things. Were we to focus only on the sins of the past, we would never move beyond grudges and a quest for vengeance. Trashing Columbus Day to create an Indigenous Peoples Day is a form of retaliation that only opens new wounds. Recognizing both interests, with separate days of remembrance, was and remains something that displays more wisdom and sensitivity. There was nothing standing in the way of this solution.
Italian Americans may not have the kind of political clout in Washington that they enjoy in New York and New Jersey. They number about 200,000, or 3.2% of the state’s population. But they are entitled to the same respect and acknowledgment of their accomplishments and heroes as anyone else.
The insult has been delivered to an ethnic group that, unlike indigenous peoples in the area of the United States, never owned slaves, did not engage in cannibalism or human sacrifice, but brought their industry, science, and arts to these shores. Instead of harming indigenous peoples, Italian achievements have enriched them.
Just as Columbus refused to accept scientific notions and limitations he knew were wrong, Italian Americans should refuse to accept the denial of their holiday. We don’t need politicians to tell us we have cause to celebrate, or what, how or whom to celebrate.
So, Viva il giorno de Cristoforo Colombo! Tante augurri, amici.