A Thought on Columbus Day

Columbus Day is the twelfth of this month, and I thought the day would be a good occasion for some contemplation and awareness.

I went and saw The Canary Effect on campus this evening, a film about how Native Americans were effectively exterminated from the United States during and following colonialism, and how Native Americans continue a relentless struggle in a plethora of socioeconomic and political spheres.

The film was infuriating and impassioning.

I looked down at my shoes, I was wearing moccasins.  I’m sure these weren’t made by Indians at Pine Ridge, and I’m even more sure that Natives don’t benefit from my wearing the style of shoe they created.  I felt slightly sick to my stomach.  Was I aiding the subjugation of American Indians by wearing these shoes? Was I another ignorant American, exploiting these people for selfish reasons?

I took a deep breath.

I left feeling major white-girl guilt and anger, but at the same time, empowered and determined to make the world a better place.

After the film, I asked how I, a 23 year old middle-class college student, could ever create positive change for Native American populations without being condescending or ineffectual.  Another girl gave a good answer.

She suggested that we become aware. That as individuals we do research and get the facts.  That we seek to understand Native cultures and truly see the reasons for why so many of them are desperately troubled.

She also noted that we must become critical consumers.  We must question what we’ve been taught in our public school systems and be critical of the bias we encounter in our textbooks.  We can also stand up for the Native community, so that when someone says, “Oh, why give them[Native groups] any funding or aid? They have casinos so now they’re rich”.  We can then politely inform them that in fact, 90% of American Indians are in NO WAY affected by the gaming initiatives.

We can confront biases and ignorance in the media.  We can kindly remind each other the truth of what happened to the Native population, that by 1890, 98% of American Indians had been killed, and after that thousands of Native women were forcibly sterilized, and thousands of Native Children were ripped from their families and put into Christian boarding schools that sought to completely deconstruct their Native identity.

Today, natives are seven times more likely to commit suicide than the majority white population. Substance abuse is twice as prevalent on the reservation as it is for white communities.  American Indians face constant discrimination in the search for employment and sexual violence against Native women is at a terrible high.

So perhaps we should contemplate these facts and revaluate our prejudices and assumptions.  Perhaps we should be more conscientious of our words and thoughts.  Perhaps we should continue our personal education and re-examine the history of the United States.

I for one, rather than feeling guilty for wearing moccasins, will use them as a personal reminder of what happened to Native Americans. I will remember what has happened to their families, culture, and heritage, and remember the struggles communities face today.  I’ll challenge myself to be aware, and to stay educated about the past, the present, and on matters of the future.

Instead of feeling guilty, become informed.

(Facts derived from The Canary Effect, directed by Robin Davey and Yellow Thunder Woman)

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