By Aaron Leibowitz
Why are people still up in arms about Columbus Day? I mean, the guy sailed the ocean blue 522 years ago. Sure, he was a bad guy who did some bad things to Native Americans, but can’t we just move on?
The answer, as you might have guessed, is no. First of all, Christopher Columbus was more than just a bad guy. He was the worst guy. For a pithy summary of his exploits, check out this comic from The Oatmeal, which includes the lovely line: “He discovered the New World much like a meteorite discovered the dinosaurs.”
But this is not just about the past. It’s about the present. It’s about this past Sunday, at a National Football League game in Phoenix, where Dan Snyder, owner of the Washington, D.C. football team, took in the action with Ben Shelly, president of the Navajo Nation.
The team Snyder owns — whose mascot is a dictionary-defined slur used to describe Native Americans and, specifically, referring to their scalping by European trappers — lost to the Arizona Cardinals, 30-20. (The team is a disgrace on the field as well as off it.) According to one Cardinals blog, Snyder spit on the floor of University of Phoenix Stadium as he was leaving during the fourth quarter.
But wasn’t it nice of Snyder to sit next to Shelly, president of the Navajo Nation, an actual Native American human being who placed a Washington football team hat on his actual human head? Not exactly. As Deadspin kindly swooped in to inform us, Shelly is a corrupt leader who’s been disgraced by his own community. He finished seventh in August’s primary election and will be out of office come January.
More importantly, Snyder was exploiting Shelly’s image — as he does daily to Native Americans by his team’s very existence — to create a false sense of support from the Native American community. The reality is that, right outside the stadium, there was a rally and march to “Change the Name” organized by EONM (Eradicating Offensive Native Mascotry). The reality is that dozens of Native American organizations and tribal governments have publicly demanded that the name be changed. The reality is that Shelly’s own tribal council voted 9-2 against it.
Snyder has consistently refused to acknowledge this resistance from within the Native American community, because to him, the only indigenous people worth a damn are the ones wearing burgundy, gold and white — the ones putting money in his pocket. His attitude reflects the erasure, both narratively and physically, of indigenous peoples in the United States and around the globe.
That’s why changing the name matters, and that’s why Columbus Day matters. Indigenous peoples from the U.S. to Palestine to Australia — not just the “politically correct left-wing (white) media” — are fighting to make themselves heard. They are fighting to have their histories acknowledged. They are fighting to convince us that their voices and lives matter. In the U.S., they are also fighting to make the second Monday of October Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
Happy holidays, Mr. Snyder.