Redface in America

columbusGuest Commentary

Here it comes again, Columbus Day. Another celebration, replete with retail sales, closed banks, and school days off. What are we really celebrating? Well, depends on which side of the street you choose to stand on. For me, the choice was very clear. Why celebrate a man who got lost, was rescued by the Taino people, sailed back to Spain, spread the word of a “New World,” came back to the Caribbean, and started a genocide of millions of Indigenous people in the Americas. A genocide that is hidden, ignored, and denied yet, in so many arenas has continued through the year 2014.

Columbus did not discover anything or anyone.

The myth of Columbus discovering the “New World” is part and parcel of the colonization of the United States that is now being vocally addressed, thanks to social media, by the one percent of the United States population who identify as Native American. But, even the term Native American is misleading. There are 566 federally recognized tribe and many, many more tribes that have either been terminated by the United States congress and the Department of the Interior or are seeking federal recognition.

It is an odd part of one’s life to carry a card that identifies someone as belonging to a tribe; Cherokee, Choctaw, Arikara, Comanche, Apache, Lummi, Navajo, Kalispell, Spokane, Shinnecock, Penobscot. It is even odder that one can, of course, have the blood of many tribes in ones’ veins but be denied access to any tribe because “they don’t have enough Native blood.” Quantum as a definer of tribal enrollment is only one of the relentlessly applied means of diminishing Native people to nonexistence in this country.

For those who might be reading this article and are not aware of the federally implemented policy of quantum, it is defined as follows:

“The question of who’s really an American Indian, what with the variation in blood quantum requirements from tribe to tribe, is confusing enough, and it’s mostly because the Federal government has a long history of meddling, claiming the right to tell Indian people who they are and who they ought to be.

Blood Quantum is the total percentage of your blood that is tribal native due to bloodline. All of the Nations use blood quantum as a requirement for membership. Usually this is detailed on a CDIB (Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood) Card issued by the United States government. Additionally, many of the Nations have other requirements for Membership.”

The damage caused by the policy of quantum is incalculable. It has pitted “full bloods” against “mixed bloods.” It has been used to limit the membership of tribes. It has been used to decrease the number of Native people by virtue of marrying non-Natives. One of the insults that people such as Mr. Yancey, a young man who claims to be Apache and is Dan Snyder’s new “favorite Indian,” used to discredit others is to call them “white Indians.” While this term may be viewed as insulting, in fact, given the very high percentage of Native people who do have European ancestry, it is simply a description, which has no validity when discussing culture or involvement with one’s tribe. Quantum, and the way Mr. Yancey used it, are intended to cause more divisions among Native people. But a woman far wiser than Mr. Snyder’s “Indian” said it best:

“An Indian is an Indian even if they have only one drop of Indian blood.”

                        Wilma Mankiller, Principle chief of the Cherokee Tribe, 1985-1995

Abolish ColumbusFor too long, quantum and looks, e.g. black hair and eyes, appearing like the mascot on the Redsk*ns helmet, has been the “measure of Native-ness.” In fact, as with any group, Native people come in all sizes, all colors, all shapes, and from all walks of life. To allow quantum or looks or stereotypes to define who we are as Native people is just one more step into colonization. Given the huge number of Native children forced into the boarding schools, as was the situation with my grandfather and great uncles, or adopted into nonNative homes, it is often difficult for Native people to have a positive sense of self, a connection to their history, or to their culture.

To truly understand the offense that is inherent in much of the racism directed at Native or Indigenous people, it takes a complete throw away of the “white washed” history fed to school children and even college students in the process of education. We are taught, literally, from kindergarten on up, that in 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue and discovered a land that, as J. Todd Kincannon, former official for the South Carolina GOP put it on September 30, 2014, was “infested with savages.”  Or perhaps, if this is not enough of an insult, we have the moronic actions of Glenn Beck wearing what he claims was a headdress from the night of the “Tea Party” in Boston Harbor. Never mind that the Native people in the Boston area did not wear headdresses such as the one Beck sported on his program on October 6, 2014. Beck insulted all Native people with his actions.

His “point” in wearing his fake eagle feathers (at least he better hope they were fake or he is in violation of several federal statutes) was to show how “ridiculous” it was that the Seattle City Council changed the name from Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day. Apparently, Beck was not the only non-Native person to feel disgruntled over the choice of the Seattle city council, the Minneapolis city council, the Seattle School District, and other cities and agencies choosing to recognize that, in spite of over 500 years of genocide; there are still Native people in existence, albeit squeezed by disease, war, and quantum theories.

There have been people of Italian descent who claim that their ethnicity is being disrespected by changing the name from Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day. Their statements are that Columbus Day is really Italian Heritage Day. However, their arguments do not adhere to the facts of the matter. Columbus Day, was, in fact, first put forth under President Harrison. A more likely use of Columbus Day was that:

“During the four hundredth anniversary in 1892, teachers, preachers, poets and politicians used Columbus Day rituals to teach ideals of patriotism. These patriotic rituals were framed around themes such as support for war, citizenship boundaries, the importance of loyalty to the nation, and celebrating social progress.”

Nowhere was it suggested in the process of making Columbus Day a federal holiday that it was in honor of Italian heritage. This does not mean that this holiday is not of great significance to people of Italian descent. It is simply not a reality that changing the name is meant to dishonor people of Italian descent. To frame the long overdue decision to recognize Native people as being disrespectful of Italian people is part of ignoring the reality of the grief so many Native people still deal with on a daily basis due to the loss of land, language, children, culture, and life that began with the landing of Columbus. These are not realities that should be celebrated.

A fact that appears to be lost in this discussion is what the immigration of people of Italian descent and other Europeans meant for Native people of the Americas. For every person who immigrated, another Indigenous person was displaced. The pain of this displacement is almost impossible to express. In effect, when politicians and others tell Native people to go home, it would be to the backyards of such people.

Despite the comments of right wing politicians and pundits such as Beck and Kincannon, changing the name to Indigenous Peoples’ Day is not a political move. It is to acknowledge the continuing existence of Native people in this land and the rich history, and innumerable contributions of Native people to this country. The argument of such change being part of a “liberal agenda” is similar to the one put forth by those who support the continued use of a racial slur, “redsk*ns,” as the name of an NFL team. There is a disturbing train of thought that those seeking to have the name of the team changed are “left leaning” or “liberal whites.”

Such a stance ignores the decades of efforts made by Native people, from Russell Means to Susan Harjo to Amanda Blackhorse, the National Congress of American Indians, and many more Native tribes, organizations, and individual Native people who are speaking up against the continued use of this ugly racial slur. It attempts to wipe away the voices of thousands of Native people saying “Enough!” “We are NOT your mascots!”

It is highly unlikely that people such as Kincannon, Beck, Snyder, et al. would dare dress themselves in the white robes of the Ku Klux Klan and carry a burning cross or show up in public in black face. There are no other NFL teams whose names are a dictionary and historically defined racial slur. There is no other team whose owner bombards the public with the fantasy of “honoring” Native people when the name of the team is a term for the bounty paid on the scalps and skins of Native people. Yet, the onslaught of racism continues unabated against Native people with Snyder and his well-paid publicity team churning out videos and photo ops of Native people in burgundy and gold at every opportunity.

Recently, Snyder has enlisted the “aid” of a young man who goes by the name of Mark OneWolf Yazzie, aka Mark Yancey, to give credence to his much repeated cry that Native people support his team’s name. There is a debate going on as to whether or not Yancey is actually Apache, as he claims, or is simply one more in a long line of posers hired by Snyder to push his racist agenda. Yet, despite the continuing and increasing dissent against the name, Snyder refuses to listen to the other voices that continually and loudly correct his oft repeated statement that the name “Redsk*ns” honors Native people.

There is another refrain that is heard when people, Native and nonNative speak up against the abuse of sacreds (eagle feathers, regalia, war bonnets) such as what Beck did in so mocking a way or request that Snyder change the name of his team. That is the line that “Native people have more important things to be concerned with.” In fact, there is nothing more pressing in Native communities that the promotion of self-respect, self-determination, and the obliteration of racism. It is racism that allowed Columbus to come back and start the genocide of the Indigenous People of the Americas. It is racism that allows a man such as J. Todd Kincannon to boast when he says:

“We need to do to Muslims what our forefathers did to the savages that infested America prior to Christopher Columbus.”

It is racism when Dan Snyder, owner of the Washington Redsk*ns proclaims he wants to help Native people by setting up the Original Americans Foundation but refuses to use his resources to truly rid his team of racism by simply changing the name of the team. It is racism when Heidi Klum, Pharrell Williams, Cher, Beck, Klhoe Kardashian, and dozens of other celebrities wear fake headdresses. But it is even greater racism when people who proclaim they are Native speak up in favor of such activities. Such support speaks strongly of the colonization that began in 1492. In the past several years, through the use of social media, Native people are coming together, speaking up, and taking their cases to court to end such ugly pract

It is racism when the talking heads at Fox News show undisguised scorn for the Seattle City School District deciding to change the name of Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Let Jerry Johnson, Jr. of Fox News speak for himself:

“It’s a social and political statement that says Christopher Columbus was a violator of indigenous people. It’s a slap. It’s an attack on Columbus Day.” (sic)

Again, this change is caged in terms of “political correctness.” In fact, Christopher Columbus did violate Indigenous people. It is not an attack on Columbus Day; changing the name is a celebration of Indigenous People. This is not an attack on people of Italian descent. It is an acknowledgement of Indigenous people still being a vital part of this world. This is not a political campaign. This is a campaign of respect, acknowledgement of past wrongs, and a step forward to finally recognizing those of us who carry Native blood, who walk the red road, who search for their history, who know the stories of their relations and themselves in illegal adoptions and in the boarding schools. It is simply, very simply, a reclaiming of who we are.

Having reached the age of sixty on September 8, 2014, the change from Columbus Day to Indigenous Day holds great significance. My father died at the age of 60. My grandfather, a survivor of the Cusuhman Boarding Schools along with his brothers, died at the age of 60. My wish and hope is that the change that the Seattle City Council, the Minneapolis City Council, the City of Berkley and other agencies and organizations and municipalities are making to celebrate Indigenous Peoples is a start in the journey back to hope and health for Native people. It is a wish that for those generations that come after me will live longer than sixty and will live in a land where they are respected and where the true history of this country will be taught in schools.

So, for Indigenous Peoples Day, celebrated in place of Columbus Day, on October 13, 2014, this is one Native woman who will speak up against the redface practiced by so many people, including those mentioned above. This is one Native woman who will thank the Native activists that went on The Daily Show on September 25, 2014 and confronted a quartet of Redsk*ns fans with such thin skin that to watch their responses is an exercise in true amazement and, frankly, amusement.

This is one Native woman who will thank Amanda Blackhorse, Susan Harjo, Ray Hilbritter, Walter Ruiz, The Oneida Tribe, the Colville Confederated Tribe, and the dozens or more of tribal councils and organizations, and the thousands of individual Native people who are saying “Change the Name,” “Take off the headdress,” and “Celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day.”

My dear cousin, Maura St. Martin (Taidnapam/Cowlitz) wrote beautiful words for all Native people and our supporters to remember:

“When you sit in the West long enough you are reborn. Going back to the source. No more Disneyland spiritualists who set up patriarchal non-profits with nonNative people and a few token American Indians. Tokens who don’t even know their people and their culture; nor do they exemplify our values. All the while why we, the remaining enrolled American Indians are disgraced and supposed to nod silently and follow.”

We ARE still here. We will survive. We will persevere. We will take every possible opportunity to speak up and say, “take off the redface.” We WILL be respected.


Robin A. Ladue is a retired clinical psychologist. She is the author of  “Totems of September.” She is a member of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe of Washington.


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