“We Have No Reason to Celebrate an Invasion”

Interview with Suzan Shown Harjo about Columbus

Suzan Shown Harjo is president and director of the Morning Star Foundation in Washington, D.C. The foundation sponsors the 1992 Alliance, formed to provide an indigenous peoples’ response to the Columbus Quincentenary. Harjo, a 45-year-old Cheyenne-Creek, agreed to answer questions about why some people are not celebrating the quincentenary. She was interviewed by Barbara Miner of Rethinking Schools.

Why aren’t you joining in the celebrations of the Columbus quincentenary?

As Native American peoples in this red quarter of Mother Earth, we have no reason to celebrate an invasion that caused the demise of so many of our people and is still causing destruction today. The Europeans stole our land and killed our people.

But because the quincentenary is a cause celebre, it provides an opportunity to put forth Native American perspectives on the next 500 years.

Columbus was just “a man of his times.” Why are you so critical of him? Why not look at the positive aspects of his legacy? For people who are in survival mode, it’s very difficult to look at the positive aspects of death and destruction, especially when it is carried through to our present. There is a reason we are the poorest people in America. There is a reason we have the highest teen suicide rate. There is a reason why our people are ill-housed and in poor health, and we do not live as long as the majority population.

That reason has to do with the fact that we were in the way of Western civilization and we were in the way of westward expansion. We suffered the “excesses” of civilization such as murder, pillage, rape, destruction of the major waterways, destruction of land, the destruction and pollution of the air.

What are those “positive” aspects of the Columbus legacy? If we’re talking about the horse, yeah, that’s good. We like the horse. Indians raised the use of the horse to high military art, especially among the Cheyenne people and the tribes of the plains states.

Was that a good result of that invasion? Yes. Is it something we would have traded for the many Indian peoples who are no longer here because of that invasion? No.

We also like the beads that came from Europe, and again we raised their use to a high art. Would we have traded those beads for the massacres of our people, such as the Sand Creek massacre [in which U.S. soldiers massacred hundreds of Native American men, women, and children at Sand Creek, Colorado in 1864]? No.

Why do we focus on Columbus rather than any number of U.S. presidents who were also responsible for the death and destruction of Indian people? Because it’s his 500 years; it’s his quincentenary.

Isn’t criticism of Columbus a form of picking on the Spaniards. Were they any worse than other Europeans who came to America?

In my estimation, the Spaniards were no worse than any number of other Europeans. The economy of slavery and serfdom that existed in northern Europe — how do you measure that in cruelty and in long-term effects against the Spanish Inquisition?

I view the issue more as the oppressive nature and arrogance of the Christian religions. And that continues today.

Our Indian religions are not missionary religions. We are taught to respect other religions. It was a shock when we were met with proselytizing zealots, especially those who thought that if your soul can’t be saved, you’re better off dead — or if your soul can be saved, you should be dead so you can go to heaven. And that’s the history of that original encounter.

How does that arrogance and ignorance manifest itself today?

How? Well, for example, the Catholic Church has said that 1992 is a time to enter into a period of grace and healing and to celebrate the evangelization of the Americas. My word, how can you be graceful and healing about the tens of thousands of native people who were killed because they would not convert to a religion they didn’t understand, or because they didn’t understand the language of those making the request?

It’s difficult to take seriously an apology that is not coupled with atonement. It’s as if they’re saying, “I’m sorry, oops, and we’ll be better in the next hemisphere.” That doesn’t cut it. We’ve had empty platitudes before.

The combination of arrogance and ignorance also results in making mascots of Indian people, of dehumanizing and stereotyping them — in the sports world, in advertising, and in society at large. The Washington Redskins football team is an excellent example.

There is no more derogatory name in English for Indian people than the name Redskins. And the Redskins is a prominent image right here in the nation’s capital that goes by unnoticed. Because we are an invisible population, the racism against us is also invisible for the most part.

You don’t see sports teams called the White Trash, the Black Chicks, the Jew Boys, or the Jack Mormons. And if we did see that, it wouldn’t be for long, you can be sure of that.

Why can’t we use the Columbus quincentenary to celebrate American diversity and the contributions of all, Europeans and Native Americans alike?

There will be lots of people who will be putting forth the perspective of rah rah Columbus, rah rah Western Civilization. Our perspective is putting forth native peoples’ views on our past and present. We also want to get into the public consciousness the notion that we actually have a future on this planet. This is something missed by even what is hailed as the most progressive of American movies, Dances with Wolves.

We’re more interested in the 500 years before Columbus and what will go on in the next 500 years. The truth of the intervening 500 years is really known in the hearts of people worldwide, even though the particulars have been obscured by a cotton-candy version of history.

Aren’t some of the criticisms of Columbus just substituting Native-centrism for Euro-centrism?

Oppressed people need to be centered within themselves. Racism and centrism become a problem if you are in the dominant society and are subjugating other people as a result of your centrism. I don’t accept the question. I think it’s an empty argument.

Aren’t criticisms of Columbus just another form of insuring “political correctness?”

The Eurocentric view, having been exposed for its underlying falsehood, now wishes to oppose any other view as either equally false or simply the flip side of reality: a secondary or dual reality.

Feelings are usually dual realities; perspectives are dual realities. But there are some things that don’t have a dual reality. For example, if we look at who has polluted all of our water, causing a whole lot of death and a whole lot of illness in this country alone, then we have a bit of a clue where the problem might rest. We have a clue whose reality might expose the truth and whose reality might obscure the truth.

It’s about time for the people who are the true historic revisionists, who are on the far right side of this whole political correctness debate, to stop lying to themselves, to their readership and to their students. They must stop their silly ivory tower kinds of debates about whether multiculturalism should be used, and so forth.

What is the true history? Just start dealing with some undisputable realities. The world is a mess. This country is a mess. The people who fare the worst in this country are poor, non-white children and poor, non-white old people. Societies who do not care for their young people and old people are decadent, decaying societies.

I think there are a lot of good minds that are reflecting that decadence and decay when they choose to spend their time on these kinds of ivory tower debates. There are things about which they can do much, and they are doing nothing.

What are the key struggles that native people face today?

We need, in the first instance, basic human rights such as religious freedom. Or how about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and other things that many people in the United States view as standard fare but are out of reach for Indian people?

There is also the issue of land and treaty rights. We have property that we don’t own and we should, and we have property that we own that we don’t control and we should.

We have treaties with the United States that are characterized in the U.S. Constitution as the supreme law of the land. Yet every one, without exception, of nearly 400 treaties signed between native peoples and the U.S. government has been broken. Every one of them.

A good place to start would be for the United States to live up to every treaty agreement. It’s also the way you get at resolving some of the problems of poverty, alcoholism, unemployment, and poor health.

If we don’t handle the big things, we can’t get to the manifestations of the problem. We have to go to the basic human rights issues, the basic treaty rights issues.

If we don’t resolve these issues, then all people in this country are going to be complicit in the continuing effort to wipe out our Indian people. It’s as simple as that.

Reprinted from Rethinking Columbus, a 96-page special edition of Rethinking Schools . Single copies available for $4 plus $2 postage. For more ordering information see the advertisement on page 8.