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COMMENTARY: Native Americans and Columbus
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COMMENTARY: Native Americans and Columbus

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Almost every American school child was taught to celebrate Christopher Columbus’ “discovery” of the Americas. However, Columbus was not a hero in the late 1400s, nor should he be idolized in the 21st century.

In fact, for Native Americans across the nation, Columbus is remembered as perpetrator of immense violence. In 1937, Columbus Day (Oct. 12 this year) became a federal holiday. But Columbus never set foot in North America. So, why does the U.S. celebrate a violent man who got lost in the Caribbean, instead of the people who have loved and protected this land for longer than the existence of America?

In recent weeks, South Carolinians and Americans across the country witnessed the powerful manifestations of the Black Lives Matter Movement. The RNC passed a resolution to preserve Columbus Day that encouraged “public educational institutions to celebrate Columbus’ unparalleled contributions to human connectedness, role in the creation of America.”

However, Columbus, whose travel was restricted to the Caribbean, left a legacy of enslavement, brutality and death of Indigenous people. It is a critical time in America that requires us to (re)focus on the racial and ethnic inequalities in our society. In this moment, we must emphasize that Black and Indigenous fights for justice and equality are intertwined and should not be treated as separate struggles.

Native Americans in South Carolina and across the continent, including my own nation, the Catawbas, have long suffered violence at the hands of Anglo-Americans. Today, Native Americans experience police brutality at a higher rate than other racial or ethnic group in the U.S. Violence against Native American women and girls is a crisis in our nation, with females being 10 times more likely to be killed compared to the average national murder rate. Federal and state governments continue to take Native American children from their families and communities. These disparities are especially urgent right now as Native communities grapple with COVID-19.

Central to Native American’s struggle for justice is our fight to be visible to the general public so that we can begin to address these many crises. Most of South Carolina's Native people are largely ignored in discussions of violence, incarceration, voting rights and health care data. We are treated as “invisible” because we are the 1% minority.

The combination of being a minority population and the pervasive stereotypical representations of Native people make it hard for many to recognize contemporary Native folks. Thus, we are often overlooked.

Major agencies do not produce data about our populations, which in turn decreases awareness of the systemic effects of health, criminal justice, food insecurity, economic development and educational attainment. Even more, the marginalization of the state's Native Americans makes it harder for us to get state leaders to hear us because we do not have the numbers or the data to make our voices heard.

So, let’s fix this invisibility by helping provide public commemorations of Native people instead of reserving space only for great, and not-so-great, white men.

After all, the Indigenous people in South Carolina contributed to the creation and development of this state. Our rich history began long before European encroachment and settlement. Thousands of years before contact with Europeans, Indigenous peoples built vast empires that had functioning governments, agriculture, commerce and diverse cultures. Most people never learn about this history. We’ve changed over the centuries, but we are still here and we still love and contribute to this land!

All across the country there have been calls to remove statues and monuments to oppressors and to rethink the way we commemorate history. Here we have an opportunity to do this and to support a public commemoration of the true values of South Carolinians.

Let’s replace Columbus with a commemoration of Native people that showcases the vibrant and beautiful contemporary Native communities that make this state great. In Columbia, the Columbus statue was temporarily removed on June 12, 2020. In Virginia and other states, Columbus statues have been destroyed or removed. At least eight states and over 130 cities across 34 states have adopted Indigenous Peoples Day.

South Carolina, let’s not be left behind. Instead of celebrating a false hero and a man who never even came to mainland North America, a man who murdered, stole and started the genocide of millions of Indigenous people, let’s pick something truly worth celebrating.

We should memorialize the history of this land and its first peoples and call on the State of South Carolina to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day. South Carolina, let’s learn some new history and erect a new monument on the Statehouse grounds to recognize the contributions of Native American people to our state.

Brooke Bauer, Ph.D., is a citizen of Catawba Nation, co-director of Native American Studies at USC Lancaster and professor of Native American history, U.S. history and American women’s history at USCL.

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