Columbus Day and Native American economic inequality

Columbus Day. How is that still a thing?
Columbus was late too, okay?

Columbus Day. What is it? Thank God John Oliver already answered this question in the form of a mockery video set to fauxspirational music.

“America’s least favorite holiday, commemorating a murderous egomaniac, whose most famous discovery was a case of getting lost and refusing to ask for directions.”

So let’s get into it.

Columbus Day itself

The History Channel on where we got this holiday in the first place:

The first Columbus Day celebration took place in 1792, when New York’s Columbian Order–better known as Tammany Hall–held an event to commemorate the historic landing’s 300th anniversary. … In 1892, President Benjamin Harrison issued a proclamation encouraging Americans to mark the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ voyage with patriotic festivities, writing, “On that day let the people, so far as possible, cease from toil and devote themselves to such exercises as may best express honor to the discoverer and their appreciation of the great achievements of the four completed centuries of American life.”

In 1937, President Franklin D. Roosevelt proclaimed Columbus Day a national holiday, largely as a result of intense lobbying by the Knights of Columbus, an influential Catholic fraternal benefits organization.

A teacher interviewed on The Progressive speaks to how she refocuses the day’s commemoration on how incredible it is that American Natives are still alive, seeing Columbus Day as a mark of their resilience and survival:

King is quick to point out that one of the most devastating realities about living in a post-colonial world is the shame that has been forced on American Indians.

“When students learn about how advanced our cultures once were, they get a great feeling of pride,” she says. “It validates them. And they also realize their culture is important to the world.”

Survival is a key word in King’s efforts to take advantage of the annual recognition of Columbus.

“We should have been wiped out,” she says. “It’s a miracle Native people still exist. I have never liked the word ‘conquered.’ We are still here after 500 years. And maybe every time Columbus Day comes around, we should rethink who the real heroes are: the explorer or the survivors?”

Many are rethinking those heroes, and some have taken it to city court: On the 2014 celebration of the holiday, Seattle citizens were celebrating differently, having successfully petitioned to rename the day “Indigenous Peoples Day.” [Commentary: rad as hell.]

“This is about taking a stand against racism and discrimination,” said the council member Kshama Sawant in an interview with The Times. Christopher Columbus played “such a pivotal role in the worst genocide humankind has ever known,” she explained. “Learning about the history of Columbus and transforming this day into a celebration of indigenous people and a celebration of social justice … allows us to make a connection between this painful history and the ongoing marginalization, discrimination and poverty that indigenous communities face to this day.” (NYTimes)

Native Americans and economic inequality

The first step I took into really thinking about this (growing up in the metro Northeast, where Native Americans are not visibly part of the community…? Perhaps I was oblivious.) was a 2013 paper from EPI on Native Americans and Jobs:

The land that is the United States, of course, once all belonged to indigenous peoples. This land, and its resources and assets, were taken by European immigrants through conquest, expropriation, theft, and broken treaties. In addition to this tremendous loss of wealth, Native Americans also lost political autonomy. Political and economic subjugation would, in and of itself, produce tremendous cultural damage, but Native Americans were also repeatedly subject to forced cultural assimilation.

Without work, it is difficult for an individual to rise out of poverty; without a well-paying job, it is difficult to save, purchase a home, and build wealth.

High educational attainment is the factor most likely to increase American Indians’ odds of securing employment.

The second was a trip out to rural Oklahoma to visit distant family and driving through a severely economically depressed section of the Cherokee Nation. Again, my naïveté is showing: I never knew that the Cherokee Nation is considered semi-independent of the US in that they have their own government, license plates, unemployment offices, and official language. (McDonald’s billboards in Tsalagi/Cherokee are a delight.)

Some sobering stats from the 2010 Census:

$35,062: The median income of American Indian and Alaska Native households. This compares with $50,046 for the nation as a whole.

28.4%: The percent of American Indians and Alaska Natives that were in poverty in 2010. For the nation as a whole, the corresponding rate was 15.3 percent.

And even more sobering facts from Native American Aid:

Typically, Tribal and Federal governments are the largest employers on the reservations. Many households are overcrowded and earn only social security, disability or veteran’s income. The scarcity of jobs and lack of economic opportunity mean that, depending on the reservation, four to eight out of ten adults on reservations are unemployed. Among American Indians who are employed, many are earning below poverty wages

Some more comments on the “why” behind the high Native American unemployment rate:

“A lot of the jobs … are not available in people’s home communities, you have to actually leave the reservation to get access to jobs,” Villegas [director of the policy research center at the National Congress of American Indians] says. “So there was real hesitance to that for a variety of reasons. Costs, related to when you have to leave work for two weeks at a time. Transportation can be a challenge. Some of the weather-related factors related to where the jobs happen to be.”

Further, when resources aren’t available on reservations or tribal communities, it forces people to spend money elsewhere.

“That dollar that someone could earn in order to get services like getting a haircut, purchasing gas, groceries, when those services aren’t available on reservations or in village communities that economy becomes less sustainable and can’t create its own jobs at that level,” she says. (U.S. News)

Geez. What can be done?

I’m so glad you asked! There are incredible policy shops, NGOs, and for-profits doing good work and creating jobs for Native Americans. And there is much to be amended to repair the drastic economic inequality that is the current norm.

Re: the educational attainment point above, I donated today to the American Indian College Fund and highly recommend you do as well if you are moved by these stats. From their site: “In 2013-14, the Fund distributed $6,406,171 in scholarships or 6,452 scholarships for American Indian students, of which 1,553 students were first-generation college students.” Rad.

I’d also check out the Partnership with Native Americans or any of the 21 organizations on Diversity Best Practices’ list.

And go call your congressional rep about these bills currently concerning the Native American population, perhaps in your states or even county.

(Dodadagohvi, which means goodbye)

PS – If someone reading this is interested in speaking from their own experience or has some additional comments about something I forgot or overlooked I’d be really happy to add your words in.


2 Comments Add yours

  1. Mary Ann Rutter says:

    You might like this, a place to plug in to ministry that doesn’t sound very far from you –


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