By Adriana Rojas | October 6th, 2020

“Every Native American is a survivor, an anomaly, a surprise on earth. We were all slated for extinction before the march of progress. But surprise, we are progress. What was apparent to Native people long ago—the interrelatedness of earth and all its species—is slowly and painfully becoming part of world awareness.”

— Louise Erdrich, from First Person, First Peoples

Cook Ross commemorates Indigenous Peoples’ Day to center indigenous people and honor their experiences. We do this first by acknowledging that the Nacotchtank (Anacostan) and Piscataway tribes inhabited the area that today is called Silver Spring, Maryland, where our headquarters is located (Mann, 2019). Throughout history, indigenous peoples have fought for the right to be recognized as sovereign tribes and as equal citizens. We also seek to inspire our partners to take action to support indigenous communities by centering their stories of resilience and challenging foundational myths about colonization. When we are attuned to the needs of Native Americans, we can cultivate equitable practices and achieve social justice.

Our intention is to expand our worldview by seeing and listening to the effects European colonization had on indigenous people and the ongoing struggles for equality. We believe it is important to recognize the attempted genocide from war and newly introduced diseases these first inhabitants suffered when they encountered European colonizers. We must recognize the resilience of generations and we celebrate the rich heritages, languages, and contributions of native peoples. As we center these experiences, we decolonize our thought and open our minds to how we have been socialized with myths and falsities about the “exceptional” European colonists who raped, pillaged, stole land from, and harmed Native American communities. As we shift our mindset, we can learn to see the world differently and employ an equity lens to name historic harms, and redress inequities.

Shifting our lens, we first recognize that indigenous communities in the DC Metro Area established settlements, homes, and trading centers along the Potomac and Anacostia rivers (Mann, 2019). Nacotchtank was a flourishing and crucial trading hub that connected various indigenous tribes (Mann, 2019). Agriculture, hunting, and fishing once thrived in the areas in and around Washington, DC. Indigenous people traded with each other, spoke several native tongues, participated in celebrations, and used the resources the land provided for their well-being.

Second, European colonization brought war, unfulfilled promises, and systemic exclusion and erasure of indigenous people from the national narrative. The foundation of Plymouth settlement and historic figures like John Smith contributed to the destruction of indigenous economic and social systems. Throughout the past 400 years in what is today known as the DC Metro Area, treaties were not honored, “one-drop” rules excluded people of color, and Jim Crow also marginalized and harmed indigenous communities. Throughout the history of the United States, racist policies and practices fomented the indigenous diaspora. People fled war to ensure the survival of their families and culture. Some relocated to reservations and some joined other groups of Native Americans fighting for their right to exist on their land. In Maryland, the Piscataway Conoy Tribe has fought for tribal status for a decade and only in 2012 the 3,500 members were recognized by the state (Libit, 2004; Maryland Department of Natural Resources, 2018).

The erasure of indigenous people from the historical narrative has had devastating health and social consequences. As a result of systemic racism, oppression, and historic exclusion, inequities have surfaced during the COVID-19 healthcare and economic crisis. Currently, 25% of Native Americans live in poverty (Muhammad et. al, 2019). In these communities, with underfunded healthcare systems and public health infrastructure, indigenous people are at higher risk for disease or chronic conditions. Because little data is collected, it becomes difficult to see the impacts of the global pandemic nationwide in indigenous communities. However, in areas that lack access to healthcare, the historical inequities become evident. For example, in New Mexico, 40% of people infected were Native American or Alaska Natives but they make up 9% of the population (Conger et al., 2020).

When we are attuned to the needs of Native Americans, we can cultivate equitable practices and achieve social justice. -Adriana Rojas #AbolishColumbusDay Click To Tweet

Indigeneity Today: From Invisible to Visible

Native Americans first inhabited the Americas and today there are 600 Native Nations (537 sovereign tribal nations) that live on lands that became The United States of America (Illuminative, 2019). Native Americans are often romanticized as passive and compliant people or portrayed as premodern societies. Toxic myths, stereotypes, and bias persist about Amerindians, including Mascots, costumes, racial slurs, and cultural appropriation of indigenous clothing and sacred practices.

Native American-led symposiums, vigils, community education programs, powwows, rallies, and concerts have contributed to rethinking American history, celebrating Indigenous Peoples’ Day, and inserting native culture in the national narrative. Tribal leaders have advocated and succeeded, in some places, to integrate Native American history in the curriculum and preserve ancestral languages. Ecology and preservation of sacred land and resources is central to the indigenous worldview. Many of the foods we eat, like corn, potatoes, tomatoes, and beans were cultivated by Native Americans. Pastimes we enjoy like canoeing, snowshoeing, lacrosse, and ball games originated in Amerindian communities. The Iroquois system of government served as a model for the structure of the U.S. government. More and more states and cities are recognizing Indigenous Peoples’ Day as a holiday to commemorate and make visible these contributions.

Celebrating Indigenous Peoples’ Day is about inserting native culture into our national narrative that centers their experiences. #AbolishColumbusDay Click To Tweet

Expanding Our Lenses: Challenging the Myth of Columbus

At Cook Ross, we have chosen to challenge foundational narratives about Christopher Columbus, and to call into question the myths of the hero narrative of the “discovery” of the Americas, the perceived right to dominion of the land, and rugged individualism. To celebrate Columbus as a hero is to continue to dehumanize and participate in the erasure and oppression of indigenous societies.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared Columbus Day a national holiday in 1934 (Library of Congress, n.d.). Columbus became a symbol of pride for the Italian American community, who advocated for his celebration. While Columbus’ origin is obscure and often contested, Columbus was born in the independent city-state of Genoa. We must also note that Italy did not exist as a modern nation state in the 15th and 16th centuries. We do know that Columbus was a mariner and merchant, who spoke several languages, spent time in many port cities, and translated his name into several European languages. The explorer never set foot in what today is known as the continental U.S. On his second voyage, he did land in what today is called the commonwealth of Puerto Rico, where he led the genocide against the Taíno people—today there are no Taínos left on the Caribbean island.

We must also be aware of the effects of the Spanish Black Legend and the historic warping or erasure of Spanish history. Christopher Columbus (Cristóbal Colón, en español), in fact, explored for King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella and documents his experiences in Spanish. In his four voyages in 1492, 1493, 1498, and 1502, he was determined to find a direct route to Asia, but never did as per the contract between him and the Spanish monarchs (Colón & Varela, 2000).

Columbus’ journey began as a diplomatic, commercial, and religious enterprise—to meet with the Grand Khan, find a new trading route to the Indies and persuade the Kahn to convert his people to Christianity. In truth, he never accomplished the goals of the Spanish Crown and he was a man who would never acknowledge his failure. He denied he had encountered a sovereign people and independent territories because his contract (The Capitulations of Santa Fe) and all the titles of nobility and riches, promised unto him and his children by the Spanish crown, required him securing a new Silk Route. As if he were aware of the problem, and to compensate for the error he committed several unauthorized and illegal acts. Among those, he claimed land on behalf of the Spanish Crown and colonized the islands of Hispaniola and Cuba. Then, he encountered people with brown skin and enslaved them. Columbus as well as generations of his descendants fought in court to be renumerated for the land and riches the explorer generated for the Spanish monarchy. However, Columbus died in 1507 and all the years of litigation resulted in his family losing the cases brought before the Spanish court.

Columbus established a hierarchy of superiority (European) and inferiority (Native), which resulted in the systemic enslavement, rape, torture, and exploitation of people and natural resources for profit. In his communications to Ferdinand and Isabel, Columbus stereotypes the natives he encountered: they would make good servants, were docile or untrustworthy, and some he labels cannibals. His diaries and letters filled the European imagination with images and discourses of innocents in paradise, uncivilized natives, the necessity of paternalism, free land to colonize, natural resources to exploit, and the monstrous races. His rhetoric and practices set in motion the dehumanization and genocide of indigenous people and centuries of conquest and oppression in the Americas. His writing about the land and people he encountered, influenced the way Europeans colonized indigenous lands, justified genocide, and erased indigeneity from the historical narrative.

To celebrate Columbus as a hero is to continue to dehumanize and participate in the erasure and oppression of indigenous societies. - Adriana Rojas #AbolishColumbusDay Click To Tweet

What Can Leadership Do?

Reflect, challenge the foundational, mythical narratives, and turn these statements into inclusive actions. Partner with local indigenous communities to learn about issues that directly impact them. Then, join Cook Ross in #AbolishColumbusDay.

  1. Start with self-reflection. Why this is a meaningful action to take? Why is this the right thing to do?
  2. Craft an Indigenous Land Acknowledgment. Research the groups that inhabited the land where your organization is located.
  3. Talk about how to center the experiences of indigenous people. Rewrite the narrative to be inclusive of indigenous peoples’ contributions, and bring these stories of resilience into your company’s conscious. Engage your workforce and stakeholders in conversation about why you are celebrating Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
  4. Partner with indigenous communities to ascertain the needs in their community and how local organizations can uplift their voices and support causes.
  5. Plan to do better, be more inclusive. Reflect on how your organization can center and listen to indigenous experiences. How can we meet the needs of this historically marginalized population? How can our organizations shift the conversation and address historic harms? How can we sponsor, mentor, and recruit indigenous people?

 

Here are 5 things that you can do today to challenge the foundational, mythical narratives of the native experience in the U.S. #AbolishColumbusDay Click To Tweet

 

References

Colón, C., & Varela, C. (2000). Los cuatro viajes; Testamento. Historia Alianza Editorial.

Conger, K., Gebeloff and Richard A., R., & Oppel Jr., R. A. (2020, July 31). Native Americans Fight Coronavirus and Deficient Data. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/30/us/native-americans-coronavirus-data.html?smid=em-share

Illuminative. (2019). For Our Future: An Advocate’s Guide to Supporting Indigenous Peoples’ Day. https://illuminatives.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Indigenous_Peoples_Day_Toolkit_FINAL_PAGES.pdf

Jones, B. D. (2018, May 17). An Open Letter to Italian Americans on Columbus Day. Medium. https://medium.com/case-in-pointe/an-open-letter-to-italian-americans-on-columbus-day-af565b510c16

Libit, Howard. (2004, March 4) Piscataway Conoy continues tribal-status effort. http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/local/bal-md.indian04mar04,0,4175917.story

Library of Congress. (n.d.). Today in History – October 12. The Library of Congress. Retrieved September 24, 2020, from https://www.loc.gov/item/today-in-history/october-12/

Mann, L. (2019, September 24). Before the White House. The White House Historical Association. https://www.whitehousehistory.org/before-the-white-house

Maryland Department of Natural Resources. (2018, October 1). Piscataway-Conoy: Rejuvenating ancestral ties to southern parks. https://news.maryland.gov/dnr/2018/10/01/piscataway-conoy/

Muhammad, D. A., Tec, R., & Ramirez, K. (2019, November 18). Racial Wealth Snapshot: American Indians/Native Americans. National Community Reinvestment Coalition. https://ncrc.org/racial-wealth-snapshot-american-indians-native-americans/

Native Governance Center. (2020a, May 14). A Guide to Indigenous Land Acknowledgment. https://nativegov.org/a-guide-to-indigenous-land-acknowledgment/

Native Governance Center. (2020b, June 5). Our Land Acknowledgment Statement. https://nativegov.org/our-story/the-land-we-are-on/

Adriana Rojas is a bilingual (English and Spanish) consultant with 15 years of experience in academe, public schools, and consulting with clients and stakeholders. Her background includes researching, analyzing, speaking, and writing about social justice issues affecting Hispanic/Latinx, African Americans, and women.