“In fourteen-hundred and ninety-three, Columbus stole all he could see.”
– Christopher Loewen, “Lies My Teacher Told Me”
On Oct. 7, Portland’s City Council voted unanimously to declare Oct. 12 Indigenous Peoples’ Day, building on a national trend to acknowledge indigenous survival and drop Columbus Day.
The testimony given to City Council lasted 45 minutes and was opened with an honor song performed by tribal members of the Klamath and Ojibwe. The council was addressed by tribal members from the Warm Springs, Grand Ronde, Klamath and Nez Perce tribes, as well as the chairman of the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde, which ceded the land currently under the city of Portland’s jurisdiction in the Treaty of 1855.
Commissioner Amanda Fritz used the occasion to apologize for the genocide of native peoples in North America and said that while some may view the resolution as merely symbolic, the council intended to back it up with action. “We have a new history of honoring our native peoples and our sovereign nations here,” she said, “and we’re putting the money behind it.”
Dyami Thomas, a former Multnomah Youth Councilor of Klamath and Ojibwe heritage, explained to the council that it was necessary to correct the legacy of Christopher Columbus.
“Growing up, I was never taught the real truth in school,” Thomas said. “We were taught to praise Columbus for his discovery. ... Something so brutal should never be disguised as heroic.”
One person who testified to the council was Ed Edmo, a Shoshone-Bannock, Nez Perce and Yakama who was born on the Duck Valley Indian Reservation. Edmo thanked the council for passing the resolution and shared personal details about growing up under the influence of white supremacy.
“In school I was raised with a lot of prejudice in The Dalles,” he said. “There were signs in the windows saying ‘no dogs or Indians allowed.’… White boys would spit on me. I was raised with overt prejudice. So I carried that hurt with me and tried to drown it in Tokay wine. I spent five years on the streets, slept in every doorway underneath every bridge except the Fremont … and I’m in recovery today.”
In addition to the biography he provided to City Council, Ed Edmo is a well-known traditional storyteller who leads professional workshops on alcoholism and drug abuse and offers guided tours of Native American petroglyphs in the Columbia Gorge. He is also published as a short-story writer, poet and playwright.
The council’s resolution acknowledges experiences like Edmo’s, stating “the city of Portland has a responsibility to oppose the systematic racism toward Indigenous Peoples of the United States, which perpetuates high rates of poverty and income inequality, exacerbating disproportionate health, education and social crises.”
According to a 2011 report by the Coalition of Communities of Color and Portland State University, more than 9 percent of the homeless in Multnomah County are Native American, and 10 percent of Native American elders in Multnomah County often do not have enough to eat. According to the same report, more than one in five native children are removed from their family and taken into child welfare custody.
Under the infamous residential school system, one in four native children were removed from their families. The explicit goal of these programs was to eliminate native cultures by removing native children from Indian country to “where there are civilized people.” In June, the Canadian government’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission described Canada’s Residential School system as “an act of cultural genocide.” According to Linda Gokee-Rindal, a Portland-based advocate with several years of experience as a social worker, many child abductions could be avoided today if state social-service workers had a basic cultural education of the indigenous peoples they served.
In response to racially motivated harms like those represented in the Multnomah County study, which were accelerated by the disastrous federal policy of “termination,” many Native Americans in the 1960s became inspired by groups such as the Black Panther Party to form urban political groups, including the National Indian Youth Council and the American Indian Movement. In 1964, the Survival of American Indians Association was formed in Washington to fight for native fishing rights. These groups won many stunning victories, and educated the broader public about Native American issues for the first time.
In 1970, The United Indians of All Tribes founded the Daybreak Star Cultural Center in Seattle on the abandoned Fort Lawton Army post, which became the first urban Native American cultural center established through militant occupation. Lead organizer Bernie Whitebear also brought good humor to the endeavor, reading a proclamation that began “We, the Native Americans, reclaim the land known as Fort Lawton in the name of all American Indians by right of discovery.”
The group that took over Fort Lawton had been inspired by the Bay Area’s Indians of All Tribes, which organized an 18-month occupation of Alcatraz Island in November 1969. The Bay Area group had also mockingly claimed the land by right of “discovery,” intoning to the public:
“We wish to be fair and honorable in our dealings with the Caucasian inhabitants of this land, and hereby offer the following treaty:
“We will purchase said Alcatraz Island for $24 in glass beads and red cloth, a precedent set by the white man’s purchase of a similar island about 300 years ago.
“We will give to the inhabitants of this island a portion of the land for their own to be held in trust by the American Indians Government and by the bureau of Caucasian Affairs to hold in perpetuity. … We will further guide the inhabitants in the proper way of living. We will offer them our religion, our education, our life-ways, in order to help them achieve our level of civilization and thus raise them and all their white brothers up from their savage and unhappy state.”
These successful protests would later find a potent symbol in Christopher Columbus.
In 1977, the first official proposal was passed to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day at the International Conference on Discrimination Against Indigenous Peoples in the Americas. The idea was later picked up in 1990 at the First Continental Conference on 500 Years of Indian Resistance in Quito, Ecuador. Indigenous spiritual elders at that conference suggested that the upcoming Columbus Day celebrations in 1992 would be an important opportunity to build strength and unity across indigenous nations.
Congress had chosen the Bay Area as the site to honor 500 years of “The Age of Discovery,” re-creating Columbus’ landing with replicas of his ships sailing under the Golden Gate Bridge. That celebration never happened, as 4,000 protesters clogged the city’s waterfront using boats and kayaks to stop the ship from landing. The city of Berkeley withdrew its support for Columbus Day that year, as indigenous activists mobilized nationwide to honor “500 Years of Resistance.’’
In Denver, Native American activists shut down the official Columbus Day march with a demonstration so successful the Columbus march was not attempted again until 2000.
Demonstrations against Columbus and the era of colonization he represents continued this October.
In downtown Detroit, a hatchet was lodged in the head of a prominent Columbus statue, accented by a flush of red paint.
Elected leaders in Spain also denounced their country’s Columbus Day celebrations. In Cadiz, the town that Columbus departed from on half of his trips to the Americas, Mayor Maria Gonzalez said, “We never discovered America. We massacred and suppressed a continent and its cultures in the name of God. Nothing to celebrate.”
At least 11 cities in the U.S. began to recognize Indigenous Peoples’ Day this year, including Olympia, Wash.; Denver; Albuquerque, N.M.; St. Paul, Minn.; Bexar County, Texas; Anadarko, Okla.; Lawrence, Kan.; Alpena, Mich.; Erie County, N.Y.; and Corvallis and Portland in Oregon.
“Olympia celebrated its first Indigenous Peoples’ Day this year by unveiling an enormous mural painting designed by Leonard Peltier – an indigenous political prisoner who formerly organized with the American Indian Movement. Peltier is 71 years old and has spent 37 years in prison for allegedly shooting two FBI agents during the FBI-backed “reign of terror” on the Pine Ridge reservation. During these three years at Pine Ridge, the murder rate rose to 17 times the national average, with a large number of indigenous deaths either unsolved or unprosecuted by the FBI.
Another exhibit of Peltier’s art in Washington recently received complaints from the Retired FBI Agents Association, leading a spokesperson for Washington’s Department of Labor and Industries to apologize to the FBI this past week. The building was hosting four paintings by Peltier depicting Native American culture as part of Native American Heritage Month, but the department now says they will take the paintings down. The International Leonard Peltier Defense Committee, which is calling on President Barack Obama to release Peltier, has called the disruption “unconstitutional” and “overt government censorship.”
Peltier’s former defense attorney, Bruce Ellison, has suggested that the FBI targeted him, in part, because he had helped to uncover a forced sterilization program of Native American women while occupying the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1972. Ellison said this program targeted women between the ages of 18 and 25 and resulted in the forced sterilization of about one-third of Indian women in that age group. Peltier had also participated in the occupation of Fort Lawton in Washington.
In a letter to the United Nation’s Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, Len Foster of the International Indian Treaty Council wrote: “The word ‘icon’ refers to a symbol of greater significance than itself. Leonard Peltier, for many Indians in the United States, is of greater significance than his own personal situation. Justice for Leonard would be an important step in the great healing still necessary between Native Americans and the United States.”
The successful toppling of Christopher Columbus at the local government level shows one direction that earlier waves of indigenous protests have taken and demonstrates that indigenous nations can use education about Columbus to win new respect and support.
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, author of the award-winning book “Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States,” said, “The central concern for Indigenous peoples in the United States is prevailing upon the federal government to honor hundreds of treaties and other agreements concluded between the United States and indigenous nations as between two sovereign states.”
Such recognition appears also to be spreading to state and local governments.
As a result of successful struggles for fishing rights, both Oregon and Washington have a unique relationship to local tribal governments and have established protocols for intergovernmental consultation.
In 2013, Portland became the first city in the country to establish local consultation policies, establishing a direct, government-to-government relationship with local tribes.
In October, Grand Ronde Chairman Reyn Leno explained to Portland City Council that their relation with Portland is “not just with the city, but to the ground.
“You can pour a lot of concrete, pour a lot of blacktop and lay down a lot of gravel, but it does not change for us that when we come here we are walking in the footsteps of our ancestors. That is really important to us, so to have you acknowledge that by naming this day is very great.”
The indigenous peoples who originally lived in Portland include the Multnomah, Clackamas, Cathlamet and several Chinook bands. These tribes were forcibly removed to the Grand Ronde Reservation in 1854, and now make up the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde. In the winter of 1856, native peoples were gathered near present-day Medford and forced to march continuously over 263 miles to the new Grand Ronde reservation under the force of U.S. military officers – an event known as the Grand Ronde Trail of Tears.
In 1953, more than 60 Oregon tribes were terminated, sending thousands of people to places such as Portland with little more than a one-way bus ticket. The goal of this “termination” policy was to force the assimilation of tribal members and eliminate their tribal identity – a goal described by Dunbar-Ortiz as a form of genocide. More tribes were terminated in Oregon than any other state in the union. After termination, the Grand Ronde tribe only regained its tribal status from the federal government in 1983.
The title for this article was inspired by Professor Judy Bluehorse Skelton, a senior instructor at Portland State University in the Indigenous Nations Studies Department. Bluehorse Skelton advocates for the creation of an intertribal food gathering park in the Cully neighborhood, and has used the phrase “recovery from discovery” to describe the reconnection of native peoples with the native plants of the region.