Monday, October 14, 2013

Goodbye, Columbus Day

Russell Means is a hero of mine. A lot of people know him from his acting career, most notably in the role of Chingachgook in Last of the Mohicans. But before that, he was an activist for American Indians.

I have some Cherokee and Blackfoot ancestry -- not a lot, but at least probably more than Elizabeth Warren -- so the history and the plight of the Indians have always been of interest to me. They're largely a forgotten minority in the United States, even though they've suffered through terrible tragedies and injustices since the first invaders set foot on their lands. And that's why I'm glad there have been people like Russell Means, a warrior in every sense of the word, to stand up for them.

Not content to live as a broken spirit on a reservation, where he saw his people living in squalor, slaves to addiction and reduced to living on meager handouts from an indifferent government, Means led demonstrations and occupations at Wounded Knee, Mount Rushmore, Alcatraz, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs office, both to bring attention to the plight of Indians and to shake up the often-corrupt tribal bureaucracies themselves. Whether his activism helped or hurt his cause is up for history to judge, but his bravery and determination were never in question.

Means died last year, but not before leaving behind a proud legacy. The Oglala Lakota was the first national director of the American Indian Movement, and it was with the Colorado AIM that he set out in 1992 to shut down Denver's Columbus Day parade on the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus' "discovery" of the Western Hemisphere. Means told the story of that day in his autobiography, Where White Mean Fear to Tread. Following in its entirety is Chapter 53 of that book, "Goodbye, Columbus Day."
When I had finished making Mohicans, I still had done nothing to curb my anger. My assassination plots were still very much alive. In fact, my list had lengthened by one.
Mohicans wrapped up on October 11, 1991 -- not a day too soon. Colorado AIM had asked me to be its executive director, and I had to be in Denver the next day. That was, of course, Columbus Day. To indigenous people of this hemisphere, the celebration is the ultimate affirmation that since 1492, Western society has regarded us as expendable. Columbus was a murdering heathen who "discovered" the heaven on earth that was home to my ancestors and immediately set about turning it into a living hell for them. Denver was where Columbus Day was first celebrated in 1907. It was also in Denver, that the territorial government decided that fighting Confederates was too dangerous, so the whites murdered red people in their villages and reported "Indian unrest" to be such a threat that they could spare no troops to fight for the Union. Heading the genocidal Colorado Volunteers was an ordained Methodist minister, Colonel John Chivington, who became famous for his massacre of Cheyenne women and children at Sand Creek in 1864 -- and for saying afterward, "I believe it is right and honorable to use any means under God's heaven to kill Indians."

For years, Colorado AIM had been trying to get the Denver populace to stop celebrating Columbus Day and to understand that by honoring the first transatlantic slave trader, the city was affirming and supporting genocide. It was Columbus who sowed the seeds of Manifest Destiny. In the Europe of his time, it was against church law to enslave or murder human beings, although such canon rarely prevented wholesale murder. To enslave Indians for his own enrichment, he had to convince the Church that indigenous people were subhuman, and therefore could be slaughtered or enslaved with impunity. To persuade the Church that they were subhuman, Columbus accused the Indians of such unnatural acts as cannibalism -- a lie. Later, Cortez accused the Aztecs of human sacrifice -- another lie, but my own recent conversations and experiences with Aztec medicine men convinced me that their ancestors, aided by a masterful understanding of plants which temporarily slow the body's functions to near-paralysis, performed open-heart surgery. This has been partly confirmed by recent archaeological and pharmacological research. In order to conceal this truth and sell the lie of human sacrifice, the Franciscans who accompanied Cortez burned every Aztec book. The church policy of genocide was the basis for European colonization of two continents -- and as the 1994 revolt in Chiapas illustrated, nothing has changed.

For years, I had been telling AIMsters that we had to start planning to do something about the five-hundredth anniversary of Columbus' arrival, in 1992. I thought it should be something very dramatic that would make international news, but only Colorado AIM shared my enthusiasm. Glenn Morris began a four-year program to educate Coloradans about Columbus and his legacy of oppressive laws and policies against Indians. We also held a rally around the statue Discovery of America, near the state capitol in Denver's Civic Center Park. I threw a can of water-soluble red paint on it to symbolize the centuries of bloodshed Columbus was responsible for inciting. I was arrested, but the charge was dismissed.

There hadn't been a Denver Columbus Day parade in more than thirty years, but in 1990, the Federation of Italian-American Organizations, which claimed to represent about sixty thousand people in metropolitan Denver, decided to have one. Glenn and Colorado AIM tried to establish a dialogue with FIAO to explain why we were offended by the idea of honoring a murderer. We suggested that they change the theme. We said, "We'll join your parade if you don't have it on Columbus Day. Have it the day before or the day after and celebrate Leonardo da Vinci or Sophia Loren or Joe DiMaggio -- anyone except Columbus." An arrogant FIAO leader said, "The police are with us." We said that if they went ahead as planned, we would stop the parade -- and they broke off communications. A few days before the event, however, we went to see the FIAO officials again and worked out an agreement whereby AIM would lead the parade. Afterward, we would set up an intercommunity group to discuss the elimination of future Columbus Day parades. As soon as the parade was over, however, FIAO canceled negotiations and refused to talk with us. AIM then asked Denver Mayor Federico Pena -- one of the lawyers who had defended me in Scottsbluff in 1972 -- to remove the Columbus statue from Civic Center Park. When he refused, we offered to contribute new statues to complement Columbus's, including one honoring Hitler. In hindsight, we should have offered one of Mussolini, too.

Another Columbus Day parade was scheduled for 1991. That's why I hurried from North Carolina to Denver after finishing Mohicans. Early on the morning of October 12, I joined an AIM rally that drew about 450 people. I'm embarrassed to say that only about 150 of the ten thousand Indians in greater Denver came to the rally. After the governor and grand marshal passed the reviewing stand, about two hundred of us moved into the street and blocked the parade. We waited to be arrested. We wanted to flood Denver's courtrooms, cost the city some money and effort. The police assembled their tactical squad and brought in buses to haul us away. After about forty-five minutes, the cops arrested the four principal leaders -- Margaret Martinez, Glenn Morris, Ward Churchill, and me. They took us to a bus and said, "Get your people out of the way and we'll just cite everybody -- we won't take them to jail." We had stopped the march and the media people had swarmed around taking pictures, so we agreed. As soon as everybody was out of the way, the parade resumed and the cops didn't issue any more citations. It was a trick. I've got to hand it to the police for pulling a good one on us.

The four of us were charged with serious misdemeanors that carried a total of two years' jail time. We went to court in June 1992, and the trial lasted two days. We defended our actions in stopping the parade by citing an international treaty on the prevention of genocide signed by President Reagan and ratified by the U.S. Senate. According to the treaty, "hate speech" is not acceptable because it promotes genocide. We offered documentation proving that acts of genocide by the United States are continuing, including the forced relocation of the Navajo, Department of Agriculture programs that compel Indians to eat substandard and unhealthy food, and medical experiments on unwitting Indian subjects in Alaska and Minnesota. We argued that by promoting stereotypical racist images of Indians, the parade encouraged genocidal practices. The jury, comprised [sic] of people reflecting the multiethnic nature of Denver, found us not guilty.

The verdict stirred up the press, especially the Rocky Mountain News, historically a newspaper for Indian haters. In the last century, its editorials had advocated annihilation of all Indians in Colorado and had lauded Chivington for the Sand Creek Massacre. After our acquittal, there was an outpouring of anti-AIM editorials. Colorado AIM wasn't among the groups labeled as "fringe organizations" of troublemakers, ex-convicts, and malcontents. Its principal leaders, Ward Churchill and Glenn Morris, are professors. Glenn is also a lawyer whose views are published frequently in local editorial pages. Many other AIM members are professionals, prestigious and accomplished people who cannot be refuted, dismissed, minimized, or trivialized. So well regarded is AIM that many Colorado community organizations -- black, white, and Asian -- have called on our security force to help protect their demonstrations, especially on Martin Luther King Day. In the wake of our acquittal, however, the infuriated Denver media focused editorial hatred on Glenn, excoriating him as a "brownshirt" -- a Nazi -- for his desire to end the parade. More hatred poured out on radio talk shows.

Meanwhile, AIM was organizing and mobilizing for the next year and the five-hundredth anniversary of Columbus's "discovery" of America. Fifty local and statewide organizations -- including the Colorado Council of Churches, the NAACP, the Urban League, the Nation of Islam, the New Jewish Agenda, Making Waves, MeCHA, a national Chicano student organization, and the conservative Hispanics of Colorado -- agreed to march with us on Columbus Day. We said repeatedly that although we were adamant about stopping the parade, we would do so peacefully. The media people acted as if they had never heard us utter the word. Broadcast and print reporting continuously ballyhooed our "threats," hysterically reiterating that we were planning violence. Raising the specter of a conspiracy, they attempted to whip up public opinion against us.

Seven times, FIAO and AIM met to try to resolve the crisis peacefully, with negotiations facilitated by Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a city of Denver representative named Steve Newman, and the U.S. Department of Justice's Community Relations Service. The FIAO "negotiator" summed up his organization's position -- he told me something like, "You Indians had better understand, this isn't your country anymore, it's our country now, and you had better get with the program." That was the end of the dialogue. How could AIM reply except by showing those racist rednecks that this is still our country and always will be?

When AIM spokesmen were invited on a few radio shows, they calmly said their piece, backed by history and facts and law. Glenn, Ward, and I met often with the police. We told them we preferred to follow the methods of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, but we had also learned from Malcolm X. We said, "Touch our women or children, and we will defend ourselves by any means necessary."

I gave talks to support groups and at strategy sessions. About three weeks before the 1992 parade, we held a meeting with non-Indian support groups in the basement of an Indian church. There were many people, black and white, who hadn't been in demonstrations since the 1960s. Some expected a police riot, so we told them how to prepare -- bring a first-aid kit. Bring a handkerchief that can be soaked in vinegar in case the police throw tear gas. Don't wear contact lenses, because if you're gassed, you'll go blind. Don't wear earrings or anything else the police can grab.

I said, "We want to stop this parade, but we don't want to break the law. Don't spread out along the parade route and attack individual floats. Please don't bring marbles and roll them on the streets, because many police will be riding horses and they will fall down -- we don't want that." I also said, "Please don't bring any female dogs that are in heat. The police K-9 corps will smell them and get all excited and run away and cause confusion. Someone could get hurt."

After saying all that, half-kidding, I added, "Wait! This is going to be a peaceful demonstration, and I'm so sure of that I'm bringing my seven-year-old son! I know we're going to win because we have spiritual power behind us." I arrived on the day of the parade to find the cops obviously worried. The chief of police had gone on television to announce that vacations had been canceled, and all Denver officers had reported for duty, Mounted police and dogs were assembled, fire trucks hooked to hydrants, and hoses manned. The SWAT team was out in force. FIAO had lined up a policeman's auxiliary organization, and had drawn the tentative support of some press organization. The FIAO had also gotten slick. It got police permits for the parade route and for a gathering on the capitol steps, where we had held rallies since 1989.

We set up our audio system and people started to flood in. A crowd of more than fifteen hundred, including about 250 Indians, came to march with us. We had many Chicanos, a few black leaders, and lots of Italians, more than were scheduled to march in the parade. But there was no parade! The floats never came. Only after the cancellation was announced did a few Italians wander in. Within five minutes of that announcement, another thousand AIM supporters, people who had been hanging back to see if something bad was going to happen, came rushing in -- twenty-five hundred people dedicated to peace and an end to racism. It was the grandest feeling. I was filled with elation and pride. Nonviolence had succeeded, and self-determination was alive.

On the day we stopped the parade, Indian people throughout the Americas held a variety of anti-Columbus demonstrations. Ours was the only event that yielded a tangible victory. I believe that was because we alone had prepared for the day by organizing for four years. We enlisted the support of all the responsible people in Colorado, and we educated the community so well that the media, despite a mighty effort, could not stir up anti-Indian hysteria.

There wasn't even any talk of a 1993 Columbus Day parade. Instead, AIM held a little ceremony in the park and planted four donated aspens. When the Denver city officials heard we were offering them, one said, "Could you please make it some other kind of tree? We like to keep the park neat and clean, and aspens proliferate -- they grow everywhere." That's why we chose them! There was no 1994 Columbus Day parade in Denver -- but today there are quite a few young aspens growing in Civic Center Park.       
As Columbus Day 2013 draws to a close here on the West Coast, I'm encouraged to have seen criticism of Columbus move a little more into the mainstream. The Oatmeal did a comic on Columbus that probably drew more attention to his exploits than anything else has in quite a while -- even though the gent that The Oatmeal offered up as someone we could celebrate in place of Columbus appears to have a questionable track record himself. In the end, maybe it's best to just stop celebrating the day altogether. Sadly, Denver has reinstated its Columbus Day parade -- and Means was arrested there during a parade protest in 2007 -- but it feels as if the tide is finally beginning to turn.

On the other hand, I've seen plenty of people reacting to the growing anti-Columbus sentiment by telling us, in effect, that we can't judge Columbus by today's standards. Everyone back then acted like that, I read more than once.

Yeah, sorry. I know the human race has made important strides in the past 500 years, but it's simply disingenuous to say that everybody was a rapist, murderer, and plunderer in Columbus' time, and that we can't cast judgment on his actions.  

Russell Means certainly thought he was fair game. And bless him for that.

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