Adios, Columbus!

On Monday, October 12, 2015, Christopher Columbus will be laid to rest in Albuquerque, New Mexico. For the first time Duke City residents will celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day (IPD), as proclaimed October 7 by the Albuquerque City Council.

The proclamation was “nothing short of extraordinary,” said Dine (Navajo) Melanie Yazzie, co-founder of the Red Nation, a new Native activist organization that, together with allied groups, influenced the council’s action. Passed by a 6-3 vote the proclamation reads in part:

“Whereas, Albuquerque recognizes the occupation of New Mexico’s homelands for the building of our City and knows indigenous nations have lived upon this land since time immemorial and values the progress of our society accomplished through and by American Indian thought, culture, and technology…..Albuquerque encourages businesses, organizations and public entities to recognize Indigenous Peoples Day which will be used to reflect on the ongoing struggles of Indigenous people on this land, and to celebrate the thriving culture and value that our Indigenous nations add to our City…”

Albuquerque joins more than a dozen other U.S. cities and counties that have proclaimed Indigenous Peoples Day in substitution for Columbus Day. According to Yazzie, similar measures will be considered this coming week in Denver and Oklahoma City. The 33-year-old activist and scholar said the Abolish Columbus Day movement was “spreading like wildlife,” with Native political activism in general witnessing its strongest upsurge since the 1970s.

“We’re going forward in a way I haven’t seen in my life,” Yazzie said. “In terms of history, we’re making it right now.”

In a statement, the Red Nation noted that four U.S. states with high native populations do not celebrate Columbus Day, including Hawaii, Alaska, Oregon and South Dakota.

“The international movement to abolish Columbus Day has gained traction in the last four decades,” the Red Nation wrote, tracing the contemporary movement to the International Indian Treaty Council’s 1977 call for a global end to the Columbus celebration and its replacement with the International Day of Solidarity and Mourning with Indigenous Peoples.

With the scent of victory fresh in the air, Yazzie and representatives of other groups supporting IPD spoke at an October 9 Albuquerque press conference. Strikingly, the speakers represented multiple generations of activists from youth to the middle aged and to elders.

If any common theme dominated the press conference, it was that the struggles against conquest, colonialism and capitalism are as relevant and sharp today as they were centuries ago. And for the speakers, their own personal lives are shaped by this legacy.

Retiring Albuquerque City Council President Rey Garduno, who sponsored the IPD proclamation, put the Spanish conquest that Columbus trail-blazed-and resistance to it- in a regional context.
Born in 1943, Garduno explained that he was from Nambe, a genizaro village in northern New Mexico which was established as “the first line of defense” against Native people. The strategy failed, Garduno noted, when the 1680 Pueblo revolt against Spanish rule erupted, sending the surviving colonizers fleeing to the present Paso del Norte borderlands.

Jewell Hall, longtime African-American activist and former member of the Rio Rancho school board, reminded her listeners of Columbus’ role in opening the door to the African slave trade in the Americas. African slaves, she said, built the economic infrastructure of the United States, including the White House, but weren’t even allowed to go into the presidential headquarters until 1960.
Now more than 80 years old, Hall recalled her family’s history in Louisiana and lessons from the woman who helped raise her as a young child- her great-grandmother, who was once a slave born in 1849.

“I’m only three generations from slavery…” Hall said. “I rode in the back of the bus. I was called nigger. I was accosted in Texas, Louisiana, up north in Michigan.”

But Hall remembered her great-grandmother saying that when the slaves were threatened they had only one place to go for help-to the Native Americans. “Together we can and will succeed,” Hall said. “The best weapon is education.”

In laying out plans for the first-ever IPD march in Albuquerque on October 12, Yazzie focused on several demands the marchers will make that address contemporary issues, albeit with long historical roots dating back to the Conquest.

In this context she enumerated human rights and environmental violations committed against Native people and their lands in the Southwest, including the murder of hundreds of Acoma Pueblo people by the Spanish conquistador Onate in 1599; the forced relocation of the Dine and Mescalero Apaches to the Bosque Redondo concentration camp in New Mexico in 1864; and the 1979 uranium tailings contamination of the Rio Puerco from a United Nuclear Corporation spill in Church Rock, New Mexico.

Yazzie updated the historical record by citing the brutal murders of Dine men Allison Gorman and Kee Thompson by a group of Albuquerque teenagers last year; the discovery of a dead, half-buried woman named Patricia Platero on Albuquerque’s West Side this year; and the ongoing struggle of the San Carlos Apaches defending sacred land from mining, as well as the Dine of the Four Corners whose land and water were impacted by a spill of toxic sludge from an old gold mine into the Animas River this year.

Paige Murphy, coordinator for the Answer Coalition and Red Nation co-founder, seconded Yazzie by explaining that the October 12 march wasn’t just about Columbus Day but many causes like the movements to evict corporate polluters from Native land.

“We’ve got to say hands off sacred Native land and water,” Murphy said. Violent crimes against Native Americans, she continued, are often downplayed. “This is a crisis, and we demand an emergency response,” she added.

Jennifer Nez Denetdale, a member of the official Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission (NNHRC) who also teaches in the American Studies department at the University of New Mexico, spoke about the Commission’s presence at the United Nations.  She said modern border towns like Gallup and Albuquerque always have been places where indigenous people lived and visited.

“We are not foreign and alien in places like Albuquerque, New Mexico,” Denetdale said.

According to the Red Nation’s Nick Estes, Albuquerque has an estimated urban Native American population of 55,000 people representing 291 federally recognized nations.

After the press conference, Denetdale spoke to FNS about concerns the NNHRC is raising in the international arena, including the desecration of the sacred San Francisco Peaks outside Flagstaff, Arizona, for a ski area.

In early 2015, the Navajo Nation filed a human rights complaint against the U.S. government over the San Francisco Peaks controversy with the Washington, D.C.-based Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

FNS asked Denetdale about the forced relocation of Dine people. 110 years after the Bosque Redondo deportation, in 1974, the U.S. Congress passed PL 93-531, which mandated the relocation of thousands of Dine people from the Dine-Hopi borderlands as Washington’s solution to the so-called Navajo-Hopi land dispute in the former Joint Use Area (JUA), a big and stunningly beautiful landscape that happens to sit on top of coal and uranium resources.

Relocation brought other problems, Denetdale said. Relocated Dine in Sanders, Arizona, for instance, even confronted contamination of their water supply after the 1979 United Nuclear disaster and, if to add insult to injury, discovered that the relief water brought in tanks  was also bad, the UNM scholar said. Some Dine families resist moving from the former JUA, according to Denetdale. “They face forced relocation every day,” she said.

Others at the Albuquerque press conference voicing support for IPD and Native causes included the Southwest Organizing Project’s Joe Stacey, a young man who accented unity in anti-racist struggles, and Samia Assed, Palestinian-American and vice-president of the Board of Directors of the Albuquerque Center for Peace and Justice, who compared the Native American and Palestinian movements.

Father Frank Quintana, representative of the Blessed Oscar Romero Catholic Community, delivered a strident denunciation of the Church’s historic role in oppressing Native Americans, and strongly criticized the Vatican for recently canonizing Father Junipero Serra as a saint.

Instrumental in the construction of California’s Mission system in the 18th century, Serra has been widely accused of genocide and employing the forced labor of California indigenous people in the missions’ expansion. In response to Serra’s defenders who contend the priest should not be judged by today’s standards, Quintana said, “Saints should lead the way and not be of their times.” Serra, however, “had no expansive vision,” he insisted.

The Albuquerque City Council’s Indigenous Peoples Day Proclamation was signed by six of the nine councilors, with three declining to add their names. Republican Brad Winter joined Democrats Rey Garduno, Ken Sanchez, Issac Benton, Klarissa Pena and Diane Gibson in approving the measure. Republicans Dan Lewis, Trudy Jones and Don Harris withheld their names from the statement.

Garduno told FNS that the Albuquerque City Council could take more action by passing an ordinance recognizing Indigenous Peoples Day, which would then have the force of law and require the City of Albuquerque to officially observe October 12 in some manner.

Although Garduno leaves office next month, the outgoing two-term city councilman said he would work with other councilors in the interim to line up a sponsor for an Indigenous Peoples Day ordinance.

For Garduno, the main “takeaway” from the Native movement and IPD proclamation is that it isn’t “just some celebratory event but a call to action to take heed of some of the concerns Native American brothers and sisters are putting forward.”

Currently, Columbus Day is an official holiday celebrated by the federal and New Mexico state governments, but not the City of Albuquerque.

Meantime, nearly 30 Native American, Chicano and social justice organizations have endorsed the October 12 Indigenous Peoples Day march in Albuquerque. Participants plan to assemble at 5 pm at 1st Street and Central Avenue and then march to nearby Civic Plaza, where a roster of speakers is scheduled.

Veteran civil rights activist Jewell Hall said she will be among those joining the downtown event. “I am not sure I am going to march that far, maybe a quarter of a block,” Hall said, “but I’ll be there.”

For an earlier FNS article about the issues raised by the Red Nation and other Native organizations check out:

-Kent Paterson

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