Today marks 525 years since Christopher Columbus “sailed the ocean blue” and landed in North America. For more than 80 years, the United States has recognized Oct. 12 in celebration of Columbus, a man who brought disease, slaughter and patriarchy with him from Europe to the indigenous people of North America. The United States honors this holiday each year, and while the Presidential Proclamation acknowledges the mass devastation that Columbus' arrival meant for the indigenous people of North America, it also says that the explorer's legacy is "in the spirit of our Nation." If a spirit of racism and lack of understanding for different cultures is what the President means, then that is spot on.
Many cities including Berkeley, Seattle and Portland have renamed Christopher Columbus Day to "Indigenous Peoples Day." Why not take it one step further, and honor a prominent woman whose culture was displaced by an invasion that is hundreds of years old, yet has devastating cultural stipulations that are still prominent today. Our country does not do an effective job of honoring women through symbols, which results in a society where female movers and shakers are not given the same historical relevance, and therefore women have less political efficacy as a whole. For the same reason that the Women on 20s movement needs to succeed, the United States also needs to recognize a prominent woman leader with her own national holiday. It only makes sense to replace Columbus' tiredly controversial celebration with one that would bring a woman with an indigenous bloodline into the spotlight.
One of the greatest historical travesties is the lack of recognition and record of prominent figures from the indigenous North American people—especially women. In school, everyone learns about Christopher Columbus' voyage, but few are fortunate enough to learn the history behind the Native American tribes that inhabited the land we stand on today. Women who originally inhabited North American land have a rich history where they were respected and given equal stake in leading their tribes. The matriarchal organization of many tribes even inspired early feminist leaders like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Matilda Joslyn Gage. Since the contributions of indigenous women deserve to be recognized, here are five from the past and present who should own the second Monday in October instead of Columbus:
Anacaona, while from Yaguana (now Leogane, Haiti), had an encounter with Christopher Columbus back in 1496 when she and her brother negotiated with the explorer. She became the chief of Jaragua when her brother passed away, and eventually was hanged by Spainish settlers who she had been friendly with, Denise Oliver Velez, a cultural anthropologist wrote for the Daily Kos. "I open one of my women's studies classes each year with her story. Sadly, few students have ever heard of her. And yet we all get our heads filled with the mythology of Columbus and 'Indians,'" Oliver Velez wrote. It was early that invading parties to the Americas ripped women out of power, and proceeded to dominate the land using brute force.
If it is one woman that you would think white men would be willing to celebrate, it would be Sacagawea. After all, she did lead two of them on the famous Corps of Discovery expedition to reach the Pacific Ocean. Guiding Lewis and Clark while caring for a newborn is seriously impressive. Shoshone-born Sacagawea was kidnapped around age 11 by the enemy Hidatsas tribe where she would become a wife and mother. Of all Native American women, Sacagawea is the most celebrated, appearing on the gold coin issued first in 2000. According to the Sacagawea Historical Society, information about Sacagawea is limited (the case with most Native Americans), and most of the facts about her life come from the journals of Lewis and Clark.
3. Wilma Mankiller
Wilma Mankiller was the first woman elected chief of the Cherokee nation. Her contributions to improve the plight of the Cherokee Nation were significant, and included developing better water and housing conditions, increasing the tribe's enrollment by three-fold and providing needed leadership for financial and political issues. Mankiller passed away in 2010 at age 64, but her legacy lives on as a woman who was not afraid to follow her passion for social justice all the way to becoming a key leader of her community.
4. Charlene Teters
Charlene Teters is a Spokane tribal member whose activism has taken the shape of art. With the National Coalition on Racism in Sports and Media she fights to banish mascots that are discriminatory toward Native Americans. Revered as the "Rosa Parks of the American Indian Movement," she is known for picketing sports events at the University of Illinois where the mascot was an American Indian. Teters' story is told in the documentary In Whose Honor? by Jay Rosenstein. Her art and activism should be recognized and known by all, especially in a nation where there is still so much work to be done to change the image of American Indians.
5. Winona LaDuke
Leading efforts to honor and support Native environmental issues and create sustainable Native communities through her organization Honor the Earth, Winona LaDuke has proved herself to be a leader to listen to. Currently, her organization is leading a campaign against pipelines, fracking and tar sands for Breast Cancer Awareness Month. "Fossil Fuels are bad for your boobs. That's pretty much it," reads a recent Facebook post promoting the campaign. She is of the Anishinaabe nation from the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota, and has twice been a Green Party vice presidential candidate. Her leadership and dedication to caring for Mother Earth make her a woman worth celebrating.
It is time for women to get more historical representation.
Who would you like to see celebrated? Any of these amazing women would be better than Columbus. Let's make a change.
This post was published October 12, 2015
Photo credits: Facebook/Wilma Mankiller, Amazon, Flickr/Norland Cruz, CharleneTeters.com, Facebook/Winona LaDuke Honor The Earth
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