Monday, October 11, 2010

On not celebrating Columbus Day

All day today I kept remembering and then forgetting that it was Columbus Day. When I was a kid, I associated the day with parades in Baltimore and the Little Italy section of the city (and great ethnic food that wasn't the kind my Polish family made). Not that we were all that into celebrating the day--we were Polish, after all, not Italian, when we expressed our ethnic selves.

(a replica of one of Columbus's ships, docked in Columbus, Ohio)

But now the holiday means something different to me. I see Columbus's landing as the beginning of an American holocaust, and the biggest event in modern times: the meeting between the people of the Americas and the people of Europe. (Of course, shortly thereafter, the people of Africa were taken here against their will to replace the native slave laborers who'd been killed off in droves in the Caribbean islands, including Haiti/Hispaniola, Columbus's original landing place.)

Nowadays I tend to focus not on a celebration of a "discovery" (what an incredible misnomer!), but on thinking about what we lost when millions of people were killed--by disease, famine, war, and colonialism--in the Americas. I think about the knowledge we lost: what the indigenous people knew about this land, its animals and plants, its waterways, its seasons, its hundred-year rhythms. I think about the songs they sang, the stories they wrote, the art they made, the stars they mapped. I think about how they understood their place in relation to the universe--Mother Earth, Father Sky, the divine all around us, the divine within us. I think about how they had everything they needed to create a good life in this place, on this land, with the people they loved.

And I mourn. Because the people who were my ancestors didn't know how to listen, and because so much was lost.

And I remember, too, that native people are still here, still singing songs and telling stories and making art and mapping stars. (For example, listen to poet Margaret Noori read her beautiful and compelling poetry in Ojibwe here.) Native people are still teaching those who will listen how we can be in relationship with the plants and animals and waterways here, and with the land itself, and with the divine spirit that lives in this place.

I want to remember and listen. I am ready to learn.