The United States has always loved its myths, its tales of glory and goodness, freedom and dignity—and it has long excelled at telling them.
Who, growing up in the school system here, watching network television, listening to the pep talks of politicians, hasn’t absorbed in one way or another the notion that the United States regularly and selflessly spreads freedom and stability around the world?
But then new evidence emerges, as it did this month, of some past sin: evidence, for example, of the depth of US State Department complicity in the rise of Indonesia’s brutal military dictatorship in the 1960s and its silence (and sometimes even applause) as more than half a million suspected leftists were murdered in an anti-communist purge.
Or new details trickle out, as they did this month, about the United States’ intimate role in the 1973 coup that toppled Chile’s democratically elected president Salvador Allende and installed in his place a bloodthirsty autocrat named Augusto Pinochet.
Such grave crimes—murder, theft, slavery, genocide—stretch back to the very beginning of European colonialism in the Americas. They stretch all the way back to Columbus himself.
“As soon as I arrived in the Indies, on the first Island which I found, I took some of the natives by force in order that they might learn and might give me information of whatever there is in these parts,” wrote Columbus, in his travel logs, as recounted in Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States.
Elsewhere, the man who “discovered” the hemisphere had this to say of the original inhabitants here: “They would make fine servants.… With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.”
This was a violence-prone conqueror, a plunderer who killed or cut the hands off of indigenous people who failed to deliver gold and other riches to his expedition. Yet every October the United States celebrates him as some sort of national hero.
But there’s a reckoning in the works—an indigenous-led reckoning that has been building since the days of Dennis Banks, the American Indian Movement leader who died on Sunday, and well before. A reckoning that seeks to challenge this country’s long-cherished myths as well as its current role in the world. From Standing Rock and the nationwide fossil-fuel-divestment drive to the bold organizers challenging racist landmarks and dishonest holidays, movements have emerged that are teaching the United States about its true past and agitating for a much better future. And much of the action is taking place in cities—in Los Angeles, New York, Seattle, Minneapolis, and more.
Goodbye, Columbus Day
From Los Angeles, Austin, and Albuquerque to Cambridge, Portland, and Seattle, Columbus Day is on its way out in scores of cities across America. Municipal officials are replacing it with Indigenous Peoples Day, a day meant to recognize and celebrate the original human communities on this continent.
Earlier this month, for instance, the city council in Austin, Texas, eliminated Columbus Day and enshrined Indigenous Peoples Day in its stead. The Los Angeles City Council did the same over the summer, with the council voting in August on a resolution to remove Columbus Day from the city calendar and honor indigenous people on the second Monday of October, the customary Columbus Day slot. Los Angeles County quickly followed suit, passing a motion this month that will establish Indigenous Peoples Day as an official county holiday starting no later than 2019.
This string of legislative maneuvers comes after an indigenous-led campaign spent years pressuring city and county officials to do away with Columbus Day and put something better in its place.
Chrissie Castro, the vice chairperson of the Los Angeles City/County Native American Indian Commission, says her organization has helped lead a diverse coalition of indigenous and other social-justice groups in a grassroots drive to make Indigenous Peoples Day a reality. In the last year alone, that coalition has run a phone-banking and letter-writing campaign, packed City Council chambers on numerous occasions, and directly lobbied local officials.
Like other grassroots groups around the country working to eliminate Columbus Day, Castro says her organization wants to tell “the true story.”
“[The campaign] gave us the visibility that our community so often doesn’t have,” she says. “We were looking to combat negative stereotypes and counter the erasure of LA’s first indigenous peoples—the Tongva, the Tataviam, and the Chumash.”
“I was happily shocked,” she adds, “when we actually won.”
Decolonizing Natural History in New York
On October 9, at least 500 people arrived at the American Museum of Natural History for what was billed as an Anti–Columbus Day Tour. The group, which included organizers from Decolonize This Place, Black Youth Project 100, NYC Stands with Standing Rock, and other groups, traveled through the museum en masse, loudly and passionately criticizing its exhibits and statuary.
Appraising the museum’s many tributes to Teddy Roosevelt, organizers decried the former president as “crucial in establishing the United States as a colonial overlord of Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Philippines, Hawaii and Guam.”
They occupied the museum’s Hall of Islam, describing it as place that presents the Muslim world “as seen through a colonizer’s lens.”
The organizers passed through the museum’s exhibits about Asia too, criticizing them for their failure to represent or recognize the “violent history of the United States in the region and its continued military occupation of many Asian nations.”
This is the second year in a row that the Anti–Columbus Day Tour has visited the American Museum of Natural History, and it is the second year that organizers have called on the museum to make significant changes to the way it presents its vast store of archaeological and anthropological artifacts.
Among other things, the organizers are asking museum officials to support the removal of a massive monument to Theodore Roosevelt that stands at its entrance. They say the monument—which depicts Roosevelt sitting atop a horse and towering over figures representing African and indigenous people—is an expression of white supremacy. Organizers are also asking the museum to appoint a commission of indigenous and non-indigenous experts to help it decolonize its exhibits, which they say include racist and stereotyped displays.
“We have sat down with [museum officials] twice since last year,” says Amin Husain, an organizer with Decolonize This Place. “We explained to them the problem with having that kind of statue at the front of the museum, a museum that is public, sitting on public land, getting public funding. Our children go to this museum, and this is how white supremacy gets spread and perpetuated.” He says the coalition is seeking another meeting with high-level museum decision makers as soon as possible.
In the meantime, some are growing impatient for action. In the early morning of October 26, an autonomous group that calls itself the Monument Removal Brigade doused the Roosevelt statue with fake blood, and issued a statement that read: “Now the statue is bleeding. We did not make it bleed. It is bloody at its very foundation.”
An Indigenous-Led Global Divestment Movement
As the resistance movement at Standing Rock reached an apex last fall and winter, indigenous organizers launched a series of campaigns across the country to urge cities, universities, and other institutions to divest from the banks that fund dirty fossil-fuel projects like the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). They scored some major victories from the very start, playing a central role in convincing the city of Seattle last February to become the first municipality to cut ties with Wells Fargo, the Wall Street leviathan that has numerous financial ties to the DAPL’s parent company, Energy Transfer Partners.
Months later, this indigenous-led divestment movement is still very much at work. On October 23, the group Mazaska Talks, an indigenous organization that led Seattle’s February divestment drive, launched a three-day global protest called #DivestTheGlobe. According to organizers, the protests were meant to urge people to “divest their households, institutions, and cities from banks that finance desecration projects, such as tar sands pipelines” like DAPL, Keystone XL, and Line 3 in the Upper Midwest.
With the backing of groups like 350.org, Rainforest Action Network and Honor the Earth, protests took place in more than 44 cities, including Austin, Minneapolis, Montreal, Oakland, Cape Town, Los Angeles, Toronto, Vancouver, and New York.
Perhaps the largest protest, though, went down in Seattle, where more than 200 people marched through the streets, visiting 106 bank branches in a day to express their outrage and call on the financial institutions to pull funding from fossil-fuel projects. Organizers, dressed in a variety of eye-catching garb, including HAZMAT suits and orca-whale costumes, went to banks like Wells Fargo, Bank of America, Citi, US Bank, and Credit Suisse. They urged the banks to follow the lead of BNP Paribas, which announced this month that it would stop financing companies whose principal business involves oil and gas extraction from shale or tar sands. At least six people were arrested through the course of the nonviolent action, including four women who locked down in a Bank of America lobby.
“This is absolutely a continuation of the municipal divestment campaign and a continuation of the general effort to divest from fossil fuels,” says Jackie Fielder, an organizer with Mazaska Talks. “What is different about this is that it is indigenous led.”
From Standing Rock to the Line 3 project in Minnesota to British Columbia’s Trans Mountain pipeline, she says, “indigenous people have been canaries in coal mines when it comes to destructive fossil-fuel projects.”