Column for 7 October, 2007
“The Lord said to Abram after Lot had parted from him, ‘Lift up your eyes from where you are and look north and south, east and west. All the land that you see I will give to you and your offspring forever.”
Tomorrow, October 8, is Columbus Day. As you might imagine, it’s not much of a holiday in my family. Kind of hard to get worked up about the life of a Genoese mercenary, slave-trader and pirate who stumbled onto the “New World,” and whose first dispatches to his financial backers consisted of cooing over how the friendly, curious Taino people he encountered would make excellent slaves. Within a decade of Cristobol Colon’s arrival at Ayiti (which he re-named Hispaniola), virtually all the Tainos were wiped out through disease, murder and forced labor. Colon then turned to kidnapped Africans to replenish his supply of slaves. Within 150 years of Colon’s arrival, between 85% and 90% of the entire population of the Western Hemisphere was dead. Put in perspective, Colon is directly, personally responsible for the deaths of one-quarter of all the human beings on the planet Earth as they existed in the fifteenth century. So brutal, incompetent and corrupt was he as governor, that he was relieved of his duties and tossed in prison. Eventually, he was freed by the King of Spain and restored to the wealth he had stolen, so Colon was able to die peacefully in his bed, a rich man, in 1506, still stubbornly convinced against all evidence that the “New World” was really Asia and the Native peoples he had so assiduously exterminated were Chinese or sub-continental Indians. In spite of his dodgy character and questionable skills as a navigator, Colon’s name (in its’ Latinized form) adorns cities, rivers and whole countries. By the Nineteenth Century, he was appropriated as a folk hero for Italian immigrants to America, leading to Columbus Day in 1971. Nowhere has the clash between Christopher Columbus the folk hero and Cristobol Colon the agent of genocide been presented more sharply than in Denver. Colorado in general has a nasty history of relations with Indians, dating at least to the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864 wherein Colorado Territorial militiamen ruthlessly slaughtered a friendly band of Cheyenne and Arapaho, primarily elders, women and children, who were camped under an American flag. The Colorado branch of the American Indian Movement (AIM) has been waging a determined campaign for years to end the annual Columbus Day Parade and the holiday itself, pointing out that even South Dakota (a state legendary for its virulent anti-Indian attitude) replaced that holiday with Native American Day. The parade organizers, either woefully ignorant or deliberately provocative, have taken to having historical re-enactors in period US Cavalry uniforms march through downtown. So what’s the big deal, you might ask? It’s just a parade and Colon died five-hundred years ago. In fact, all those massacres and so forth happened a long time ago. Can’t you people just get over it? Okay, consider this; the US Congress stripped tribal courts of the power to try most felony cases with the Major Crimes Act of 1885 (an act, by the way, that is utterly unconstitutional since it purports to strip powers from sovereign nations without their consent). In the case of Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe in 1978, the Supreme Court ruled that Indian courts cannot prosecute non-Indians for crimes committed on Indian land. Recently, a study showed than one in three Indian women will be the victim of sexual assault, a much higher rate than among any other population group. In over 86% of those cases, the perpetrator is a non-Indian. Do you see where this is going? Indian Country is not just huge empty stretches of land in Montana, New Mexico, Arizona and the Dakotas; it’s also large swathes of well-populated Eastern Oklahoma. The US Department of Justice (the ONLY agency that can prosecute non-Indian felony offenders who commit crimes on tribal lands) doesn’t even bother to keep statistics on how many major crimes it prosecutes in Indian Country, but the numbers are anemic to non-existent. So the word has gotten out to sexual predators and pedophiles; come on down to tribal lands and prey on the Indians. Not only will they likely never be prosecuted, in many cases the tribal police are precluded from even arresting them even if they are caught in the act of committing a crime! These tribes have courts, they have judges, they have prosecutors. They have police; in fact, some tribes (those fortunate enough to be blessed with large amounts of casino money) have better equipped and trained police forces than any of the surrounding sheriff’s departments or police departments. Yet, Congress and the US Supreme Court, though acts of callously transparent racism, have transformed large portions of the United States into a lawless Wild West, where criminals can victimize the innocent with impunity. This is happening today, not five-hundred years ago. Today. Regardless of the motivations of the people who organize and defend Columbus Day, the effect is a gigantic slap in the face to those surviving Indians in this country, not unlike the blasphemous effect of carving the graven images of white rulers into the sacred mountains of the Paha Sapa, the Black Hills, which the Lakota still refuse to surrender, in spite of a $757 million judgment against the Federal government for the theft, money one of the poorest tribes in America will not deign to accept. Congress is currently holding hearings on the mass victimization of Indian women. The best solution would be to restore tribal sovereignty, repeal the odious Major Crimes Act and overrule Oliphant, which was based on a painfully contorted fiction of legislative intent in the first place. Restore to the tribes the basic power to protect their own women and children from vicious predators. And, while we’re at it, stop the parades; put the ghosts of Cristobol Colon to rest.