I wondered what effect converting Columbus Day into Indigenous Peoples Day would have on the retail industry. Everything from Columbus Day car sales to supermarket flyers would have to be reconceived. Advertisers will no longer urge you “to discover” the great deals at your Ford dealership. Food markets will stop featuring sales on mozzarella, Italian sausage, and broccoli rabe.
To see what the future holds, I searched the net for this week’s supermarket flyers on Native American reservations. I found Bashas’ grocery in Navajo country of Arizona and Buche Foods in South Dakota’s Oglala Sioux country. The first shock is that neither supermarket proclaimed Indigenous Peoples Day – it’s just a regular week among the natives. The second shock was the stuff on sale was exactly what we eat in Columbus country – beef, pork, chicken, bacon, lamb, sugary desserts, and dairy products – in short, the Old World animals and products that the Great Navigator brought to the New World. Supermarkets in Indian country aren’t doing blow-out sales on corn, beans, and squash (the “Three Sisters” of Native Americans). Nor, are they featuring bison, elk, deer, bear, moose, or squirrel meat. Worse, mac & cheese and frozen pizza are mainstays on the reservations! Even eggs are likely from Leghorn (Italian) chickens rather than wild birds and turtles like in pre-Columbian days.
Checking into food circulars in cities that have chucked Columbus Day, like Los Angeles, I found none celebrating Indigenous Peoples Day (IPD) this week. In short, it looks like IPD has a very somber future as it gains adherents. After all, what’s to really celebrate?
To gain insight into pre-Columbian America, I am reading the 2014 book Noble Savages by the late anthropology professor Napoleon Chagnon of Missouri. Chagnon spent over a year (1964-66) among the Yanomamö Indians of Venezuela – a tribal group of 25,000, living in 250 or more villages – who have endured for centuries relatively untouched by civilization in the Amazon region. Their social values probably vary little from those of the natives Columbus encountered in the Caribbean, including nakedness and kinship hierarchies.
The book’s cover accentuates the word “Savages” and is subtitled “My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes – the Yanomamö and the Anthropologists.” In short, Chagnon found little nobility among the natives which, in turn, made him an enemy of the desk-borne professionals that questioned his findings. What irked his politically correct colleagues was Chagnon’s revelation that wars were common among the genetically-related villages and were usually fought over women (for sex).
Just a look back to 1492 will confirm this. When Columbus lost the Santa Maria on the rocks of Haiti that December, he asked the local chieftain if he could leave its crew of 39 on the island while he returned to Spain for new ships. When the Admiral returned in 1493 he found all his men murdered and the chief claiming that they had abused native women and were murdered by a rival chief. That all 39 stranded men took that risk, knowing their lives were dependent on the Taínos, strains credulity. But, Columbus held his peace.
Chagnon observed the lengths Yanomamö men went to keep their multiple wives from being raped by single men or kidnapped by neighboring villagers. Women were routinely beaten or maimed for walking alone or wandering off. To traditional anthropologists, wars among pristine natives were fought over scarce resources or land, not women.
Chagnon writes of a nearby Salesian Catholic mission run by Italian padre Luigi Cocco. Over the years, Cocco had given shotguns to a few Yanomamö men for hunting purposes, not knowing the violent nature of the tribe. When Chagnon revealed that the guns were being used to kill men in distant villages, Cocco was shocked.
Like Padre Cocco and armchair anthropologists, many historical revisionists are shocked by any defense of Columbus that suggests the “innocent” natives of the New World had the same natural proclivities as other men. They wallow in a fantasy world of noble savages, where women labor unceasingly but are protected, where tranquility reigns until an outside force brings hate and violence. Few admit that human nature is but a form of animal nature. That regardless of time or place, race or region, religion or politics, it often reveals its ugly side.
I guess it’s up to us to break the news every Columbus Day. -JLM