Chippewa militant/movie star Dennis J. Banks recently passed away. His obituary caused me to reflect on the Indigenous peoples movement.
Banks was a revered patriot among Native Americans. He fought, often violently, against the U.S. government to protest its treatment – past and present – of Indigenous peoples. He led a 6-day takeover of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, DC and mounted a 71-day occupation of the infamous town of Wounded Knee, SD. But to most Euro-Americans, Banks was a violent agitator and outlaw. Once convicted for riot and assault, he jumped bail and was on the run for eight years before eventually serving fourteen months in prison.
He ranks among those who vilify Christopher Columbus as the initiator and enduring symbol of white racism in the New World. Like so many others, Banks blamed Columbus and Euro-Americans for the problems of America. In Banks’s case, those problems included alcoholism, violent behavior, prison time, a failed marriage, serial bed-hopping – he abandoned his Japanese wife and child, fathered 19 children with various women (he had over 100 grandchildren!) – but still managed to be a hero to his people.
He did go sober and become an elder in his tribe, culminating in a modest movie career (he played a heroic Iroquois in Last of the Mohicans). Give this devil his due.
But neither Banks nor the myriad haters of Christopher Columbus have given the Great Navigator his due. Their disdain for the man who unified the globe runs the gamut: ‘Columbus never actually landed in the New World, only some islands’; ‘he got here by dumb luck’; ‘he only came for gold and slaves’; ‘he committed genocide’; ‘he started the African slave trade’; ‘he destroyed paradise’; and so on. How can anyone have a serious exchange of historical facts when Native Americans spew such jingos?
Therein lies the crux of our problem in defending Columbus Day. Real history is boring, but jingo history goes right to the pleasure center – the simpler the better. Just saying “Not true!” is about all you can sputter against a jingo, because that’s all the average attention span will permit. We live in a world of entertaining sound bites, not rational discussion.
My Institute colleague Don Fiore has observed the change in the Columbus Day controversy since 1991 when he debated Native Americans just before the Quincentennial. “It was not so much directed at Columbus himself, as they are doing today. It was in broader reference to subsequent maltreatment of the Natives over the following centuries by Europeans in general. In 1991, the biggest crime committed by Columbus was just opening up the Americas for exploitation. Their perspective was more of an indictment against Caucasian conquest than crimes personally committed by Columbus himself.” In short, our opponents have now homed in on the ultimate scapegoat – the Italian guy.
It is also important to note that the opponents of Columbus Day are not the commonly perceived Native Americans. The Los Angeles City Council changed the day to Indigenous Peoples Day after heavy lobbying by “Hispanic” groups – more properly mestizos, the Spanish term for those of mixed Euro-Native stock. What is curious is that in Mexico and Central America Columbus Day has always been El Dia de la Raza, a celebration of that new “race.” By inference, the holiday also honors Columbus, who made such DNA mixing possible. Clearly, the vast influx of illegals into this country are mestizos. You would think that being part Spanish would make them more accepting of Columbus Day, but no.
Were we to judge our tolerance for Native Americans and undocumented immigrants solely on their opposition to Columbus Day, Trump’s Wall would go up tomorrow. Likewise, the DACA “dreamer” children would no longer have our sympathy. And don’t mention Indian casino licensing! It’s hard to feel sorry for people out to mutilate your heritage. -JLM