The Columbian Question: A Call for a Plebiscite on Columbus Day

In 1994, Common Courage Press, a progressive publishing house dedicated to social justice and based out of the small town of Monroe, Maine, produced a manuscript entitled Indians Are Us?: Culture and Genocide in Native North America. The author of this text was none other than the Creek-Muskogee intellectual, political activist, and scholar, Ward LeRoy Churchill, who was at the time serving as the professor of ethnic studies at the University of Colorado Boulder. In the second chapter, entitled “Bringing the Law Back Home: Application of the Genocide Convention in the United States,” Churchill joined—and perhaps even surpassed—a growing number of journalists, scholars, activists, and citizens by emphatically calling for an end to the annual celebration of Columbus Day in America. “Undeniably,” Churchill wrote, “the situation of American Indians will not—in fact cannot—change for the better so long as such attitudes are deemed socially acceptable by the mainstream populace. Hence, such celebrations as Columbus Day must be stopped.”

Nowadays, there is perhaps no holiday in America culture more defined by ambivalence than Columbus Day. While most working professionals—particularly of the millennial generation—are happy enough getting a day off from work in October, no matter what the occasion, some are finding it harder and harder to memorialize the “Admiral of the Ocean” without feelings of cynicism. These people may not go as far as to agree with scholars like Ward Churchill, or the American historian Alfred W. Crosby—who ended his groundbreaking book The Columbian Exchange (1972) on an extremely pessimistic note about the consequences of European discovery—but most of them harbor at least a vague understanding that the century following European arrival in the Americas is not an historical period with which to be particularly proud or patriotic. At the same time, critics recognize that there is something undeniably important about remembering the pivotal, historical changes that occurred during this period.

The modern dilemma of Columbus Day is partly attached to the atrocities that its namesake and his companions inflicted upon the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean. Indeed, some people know about the 48-page report by Francisco de Bobadilla, the governor of the island of Hispaniola after Columbus, from 1500-1502. Testimonies in this report indicate that Columbus faced serious indictments for torturing, mutilating, and enslaving the indigenous population, most notably the Lucayan people of present-day Bahamas and the Taíno people of present-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

Among other things, these reports state that Columbus suppressed numerous indigenous revolts, afterward reaffirming his authority by parading dismembered bodies through the street, cutting off noses, shipping natives to the Iberian peninsula in shackles (most of them dying en route), and generally instituting one of the most brutal systems of forced labor that history would ever bear witness to. Since the rediscovery of this specific report in the Spanish archives, a series of short, History-channel documentaries, collectively entitled the “Columbus Controversy,” has attempted to integrate these atrocities into our general understanding of the famous and infamous conquistador.

Continue reading “The Columbian Question: A Call for a Plebiscite on Columbus Day”

Revising the “Fort Dearborn Massacre” [Roundtable]

For the 9th Annual Loyola History Graduate Student Conference, the LUC Public History Committee will host a roundtable on “Revisionist Public History.” This is a post that introduces a case study on the topic. The Committee welcomes participation both online and at the conference. If you have an example of “Revisionist” Public History, please feel free to mention it as a comment on the blog, or contact the blog editors to request the opportunity to author a guest post. For more information on the Conference and the Roundtable–to be held November 3 at Loyola’s downtown Water Tower Campus–click here

The Battle of Fort Dearborn Park (WBEZ/John Schmidt)

The bicentennial of the War of 1812 has received depressingly little notice even here in the Great Lakes region, home to several important sites of that conflict. An exception to this general apathy relates to a space on Chicago’s Near South Side where, on August 15, 1812, a band of Pottawatomie overwhelmed about 100 evacuees from the US Army’s nearby Fort Dearborn. The confrontation was a rout: 28 American soldiers were killed and 28 were captured. Civilian losses–a complicating matter in the ongoing memory of the event–amounted to 14 killed and 15 captured, including 3 women and 12 children.

The Anglo-American perspective of the event prevailed as the dominant interpretation of the violence, most notably in the seemingly undisputed appellation “The Fort Dearborn Massacre.” However, as many American Indians have sardonically noted over the years about white-Indian conflicts, ‘When the whites win, it’s a “battle,” when the Indians win, it’s a “massacre.”‘ Continue reading “Revising the “Fort Dearborn Massacre” [Roundtable]”

Balancing Preservation and Interpretation at Canyons of the Ancients National Monument

A  tension persists between two main enterprises comprising cultural resource management: preservation and interpretation. The objectives and effects of each undertaking are not easily negotiated in many contexts, making the task all the more difficult for cultural resource managers. Many question the utility and purpose of preservation if its ultimate objective is not to interpret the resource to the public. With public interpretation comes increased traffic, however, which can impact the resource negatively. Such degradation can, in turn, reduce the prospects for effective interpretation or necessitate a complete revision of the interpretive program. The best way to preserve a resource is to keep people away from it; the best interpretation draws people from far afield. Continue reading “Balancing Preservation and Interpretation at Canyons of the Ancients National Monument”

Re-envisioning Historic Fort Snelling: Confessions of a Fort Employee

I wake up most mornings thrilled to go to work. I relish the rare opportunity to engage in positive dialogue with the public about critical themes in Minnesota and United States history. On a daily basis I participate in open conversations about class, slavery, and American Indian history. I feel continually supported by a remarkably amicable staff and refreshingly thoughtful and efficient supervisors. Considering the many museums and historic sites still reveling in nostalgia and Great Man history, I truly value the opportunity to practice public history at Historic Fort Snelling. Not to mention my sheer enjoyment of hearth cooking or playing nineteenth century games with children.

All the fantastic aspects of employment at Historic Fort Snelling tend to overshadow the occasional discomforts: the offhanded racist comment of a guest; the low traffic in Dred Scott Space or Indian Agency compared to the overwhelming popularity of the infantry and artillery drills; enthusiastic youth marching and shooting imaginary guns. Perhaps these are just the unfortunate realities of interacting with the public.

A recent experience, however, put my discomforts into sharp relief. While stationed in the Indian Agency I observed a visitor who appeared to me to be American Indian. As he exited the space he turned to his companion and stated matter-of-factly, “there is a lot of evil in this room.” Continue reading “Re-envisioning Historic Fort Snelling: Confessions of a Fort Employee”

Around the Web (April 2012)

Depp’s Tonto (left) and Sattler’s “I Am Crow” (Gawker.com)

Periodically, a Lakefront Historian contributor surveys recent public history-related news that has made their way to the Internet. In this installment of “Around the Web,” Devin Hunter points to items ranging from Johnny Depp’s dubious Tonto get-up to the perilous economic condition of the Canadian national archives. Follow The Lakefront Historian on Twitter (@LakefrontHist) for news updates as they happen. Continue reading “Around the Web (April 2012)”