On Oct. 3, 2017, the city of San Luis Obispo officially joined more than 40 other communities and several states across this country that have replaced Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day.
A huge AU’AU’ (“thank you” in our Northern Chumash language) to Mayor Heidi Harmon as the driving force to bring this change about, and to the entire City Council for their support. I salute their moral courage and their wisdom. It’s not easy to challenge the status quo, but in this case it’s the right thing to do.
Many may still find this change surprising and difficult to understand.
It might be easier for some to accept had not so much of the real history about “conquering” the original inhabitants of this country been left out of our schooling.
Fortunately, more and more, people are wanting the truth to be told.
It is not always a pretty story, but it is our collective, shared history. It is also our responsibility to bring light to this dark past. Eliminating the honoring of an explorer who helped initiate the decimation of native tribes in this hemisphere is one step toward repairing horrific wounds. It also works toward inclusion of all the history of this area and supporting education. But it is primarily about telling the truth.
This truth-telling began in earnest in 1977 when this proposal was made by a delegation of Native Nations at the International Conference on Discrimination Against Indigenous Populations in the Americas, sponsored by the United Nations. This helped initiate a reexamination of the usual stories and myths surrounding Columbus’ voyages.
Efforts ramped up as our nation prepared to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ “discovery” in 1992. Scholars and historians pored over original documents and records to piece together a more complete picture of what happened. Using also Columbus’ own journals and those of his fellow explorers, facts and events surfaced that uncovered the human misery inflicted on the indigenous inhabitants in the path of the invaders.
I was raised with the usual education script here in California, so learning our more complete history now has been beyond shocking ... and heart-breaking. Much has been written about Columbus’ first voyage in 1492 and his expert seamanship. It seems the establishment of the holiday in 1937 only focused on this first voyage.
One year after first landing, Columbus returned with an armada of 17 ships, appointed as viceroy and governor of the Caribbean islands by the Spanish Crown, at his own request. Writings about the second voyage in 1493 expose not only the usual goals at that time of conquest and gold acquisition, but more importantly, the exploitation and ultimate annihilation of the Caribbean islands’ inhabitants.
In the area known today as Haiti and the Dominican Republic, Columbus’ policies of slavery and “systemic extermination” reduced the native Taino population, estimated upwards of 8 million at his regime’s beginning to 22,000 (found in the 1514 Spanish census of the island). Columbus was governor until 1500.
By 1542, only 200 native Taino were recorded. Some references consider them extinct. (See “Confronting Columbus, An Anthology,” by John Yewell, Chris Dodge, Jan DeSirey, published 1992.)
I have also learned more about California’s dark history. One carefully researched and recently published book by Benjamin Madley, a historian at UCLA, demonstrates compelling proof about government involvement in California’s native population plunging from about 150,000 to 30,000 in 27 years. (See “An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe, 1846-1873.” I also recommend, “An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States,” by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz. Or just Google a topic of related interest.
Learning more of the old ways, I know that when I speak of my grandmother, I do not necessarily speak of only my father’s mother, but also her mother, and her mother before, and before. My grandmother, 200 years ago or 2,000, was a seed-keeper and knew the ways of growing — when best to plant, how to rotate crops and when to burn the land to fertilize and stimulate new growth. Just as your grandmother was likely also a seed-keeper, be it 200 or 2,000 years ago. Recognition and acknowledgment and respect for those whose cells we carry embolden our journey in this life. We all come from indigenous roots — and we all deserve to have them respected, so I encourage you to learn yours.
The presence of Northern Chumash in our area dates back more than 10,000 years ... and we are still here. Through all the challenges, attempts at direct and indirect annihilation of our people, we are still here. Through all the confiscation of our homelands/broken treaties/broken families/forbidden language, ceremonies, religion, culture ... we are still here. This story of resilience is the one that should be taught.
Wendy Lucas, native Californian, is a member of yak tityu tityu yak tiłhini (“all the people”) Northern Chumash Tribe, and on the Board of Directors of YTTYT Kinship Preservation Non-Profit Organization. She is a retired physical therapist, artist and musician. She lives in San Luis Obispo.