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.