Happy (or Not so Happy) Columbus Day to us All!

10/03/2011 09:00 pm ET | Updated Dec 03, 2011
  • Alison Owings Author, 'Indian Voices: Listening to Native Americans'

Don't let this spoil your parade, picnic, or extended weekend.

The following I offer as part of my one-woman attempt to nudge fellow non-Native Americans into basic understandings, should they need some, via overlooked bits of Americana. Some of the 3,231 responses to my last Huff-posting, about the three troublesome (to me) words in the Declaration of Independence, "merciless Indian savages," contained outrage towards me, not Thomas Jefferson. Oh my!

Nonetheless, here goes.

If there is a single individual in history more disliked by more Native Americans than George Armstrong Custer and Andrew Jackson, it is Christopher Columbus. Granted, the geographically-challenged seafarer from five centuries ago does not elicit the personal enmity afforded the more recent figures and their actions.

And granted, there are jokes, because Native Americans joke about almost anything. "Hey, it's a good thing Columbus wasn't trying to find Turkey, or..." etc.

Before knowing either enmity or joke, I was among millions of American children who celebrated the "discovery" of America, happily reciting "Columbus sailed the ocean blue..." and drawing in crayon the three doughty ships that carried admiral and crew far from, say, Calcutta. I've been to any number of Columbus Day parades, including on Columbus Avenue in San Francisco, as Italian-Americans led the disparate crowd in waving red, green, and white flags. What's not to like?

"Discovery," for one thing. Not only the arrogance of the concept (since edited to be less patronizing), but the results. The loss, for starters, of this magnificent continent.

Although Native people are spectacularly accommodating as a whole to what they call "the dominant culture," these days many tribal offices make a point of staying open, business as usual, on Columbus Day. (Christopher who?) There is also a movement to observe the day for those he "discovered." Indigenous Peoples Day, sometimes called Native Americans Day, is several decades old and -- from what I can glean from Google -- spreading.

The holiday name switcheroo follows centuries of American (not-exactly) Indians generally trying to help their "discoverers," including you-know-who, as well as to co-exist with subsequent settlers and their multiplying progeny (including mine), to convert to Christianity, and to sign treaties (if under duress) with the governments that treated them so shabbily. The impulse toward generosity persists. In years spent interviewing individual Native people about their lives in this new country, I often was struck by their zeal to defend it, sometimes with old ways. Last week, a woman from the Crow Reservation who retired as a Command Sergeant Major in the U.S. Army told me how in Iraq she prayed over and smudged tanks and other vehicles with the smoke of cedar and sage, to protect her soldiers. Few of them were Natives, but she said they welcomed her care. And they came back alive. Prayer is powerful, she asserted. She herself, though, came back home with post-traumatic stress disorder.

It is altogether fitting that our fellow citizens, Native Americans, eschew Columbus Day celebrations. They never felt "discovered" anyway. They do, however, feel strongly about re-discovering, their own cultures.

But that's another story.