As Columbus Day fast approaches so does the realization that it is one of the most controversial of 8 U.S federal holidays. At least 17 States do not celebrate or recognize the holiday and plans for annual protests and related educational initiatives are well under way across the United States.
While some Americans question why there is so much controversy directed toward the “discoverer of the New World”, I am reminded of the collective “human spirit” that brought together the nations who developed the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide in 1948. The United States was among the original signatories of this Convention whose second article states that genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members
of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of
life calculated to bring about its physical
destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births
within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to
In light of this definition, as we review the legacy of Columbus - from the acts he personally committed to atrocities committed by his “countrymen” and successors - one would be hard pressed to not see the connections to the genocide of Caribbean and other Indigenous Peoples throughout the hemisphere.
Whether “mixed or full blood”, the contemporary descendants of the first Indigenous Peoples to meet Columbus, the Taino, Carib, and Arawak Peoples are survivors of what can be considered a centuries-old campaign of genocide committed against our communities. From the encomienda system to the sterilization of our women to the commodity and genetically modified foods that have been imposed on our rural or urban “ghetto-ized” communities, this genocidal campaign continues albeit in subtle forms. These vestiges of old colonial regimes masquerading as a new world order affect the well-being of not only our present but our future generations.
Although Columbus himself never set foot in the United States, Indigenous Peoples throughout the country recognize that the celebration of the federally (tax payer) funded holiday called Columbus Day is a symbol of genocide. Promotion of Columbus as a “hero” is racism as its one-sided mainstream presentation attempts to sanitize the injustices committed during his time or the injustices that continue to be committed against our Peoples today. Indeed, Columbus Day supporters vindicate the celebration of these injustices under the guise of an alleged “civilizing” of savage, non-European peoples.
With regard to racism, I refer to the Webster’s definition, which holds that it is “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.” In the same definition, racism is further defined as “racial prejudice or discrimination.”
Again, by reviewing the motives behind the Columbus enterprise as well as his actions toward and against the Indigenous Peoples of the Caribbean, we can link not only the man himself but his legacy and symbolism directly to racism. This link can be made much in the same way there was an outcry against flying the Confederate Flag on U.S. government grounds. The Confederate flag is linked by many to the legacy of slavery and it is generally accepted that slavery in the past or present constitutes a gross human rights violation unacceptable by “civilized” standards today.
Columbus was a slave trader and the majority of his contemporaries promoted and exported this institution. Fueled by his philosophy of racial superiority, Columbus instituted systems on behalf of the King and Queen of Spain, which fundamentally denied the self-determination of Caribbean Indigenous Peoples. This racist philosophy has been supported at all levels of imposed government regimes including past and present educational systems.
Contemporary Taino descendants should have a particular interest in this subject as government and educational institutions continue to deny our right to self-determination by denying our existence. The denial of our right to self-determination is a violation of our basic human rights. Our right to self-determination was recently acknowledged by the United Nations with its adoption of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Non-Taino academics who are elevated to the status of “experts” on our culture without any consultation with our communities are intentionally or unintentionally parties to these human rights violations. While we remain “invisible” peoples with no rights, “they” remain free to say and promote what they want to say about ancestors, our people and our heritage.
Make no mistake if you are a Taino, your rights are being violated everyday whether you want to admit it or not. These violations do not discriminate against “full bloods or mix bloods” as they are violations against our communities as a whole. Our most recent example of the violation of our rights as Taino people is evidenced by the “Grito de Caguana” protest in Boriken (Puerto Rico) and the arrest of Taino people occupying our sacred ceremonial grounds. These violations, these examples of racial prejudice and discrimination as well as the promotion of symbols of genocide against our ancestors and our peoples must not be tolerated even at the most subtle level.
Referring back to Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, Article 3 states that along with genocide; conspiracy to commit genocide; direct and public incitement to commit genocide; attempt to commit genocide; and complicity in genocide are all punishable by law.
As we turn our attention toward the state-sponsored promotion of symbols of genocide such as Columbus and Columbus Day, it becomes ever clearer that our present and future generations can not afford our complicity. While the legacy of Columbus is a part of our collective history, it is not a legacy that should be sanctified with a national celebration at the expense of those whose ancestors gave their lives defending their liberty against a brutal and unjustifiable oppression.
Roberto Mukaro Agueibana Borrero is the President of the United Confederation of Taino People`s Office of International Relations and Regional Coordination. He is also the current Chairperson of the NGO Committee on the United Nations International Decade of the World`s Indigenous Peoples, a Special Committee of the Conference of Non-Governmental Organizations in Consultative Relationship with the United Nations - CoNGO.