President Biden has formally recognized Indigenous Peoples’ Day as a federal holiday, following a growing movement to debunk the myth of Christopher Columbus as a beneficent discoverer and replace it with recognition that the arrival of Columbus in the Bahamas unleashed a brutal genocide that massacred tens of millions of Native people across the hemisphere. But the holiday will continue to be shared with Columbus Day, which many argue glorifies the nation’s dark history of colonial genocide that killed millions of Native people. “It’s just not appropriate to celebrate Columbus and Indigenous peoples on the same day. It’s a contradiction,” says author and historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz. “Genocidal enslavement is what Columbus represents.”
AMY GOODMAN: And we’re going to go to New Mexico in one minute, but I wanted to ask you about your latest book, Not “A Nation of Immigrants”: Settler Colonialism, White Supremacy, and a History of Erasure and [Exclusion]. Before that, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States. Not an immigrant nation — you’re sort of debunking that term that President Kennedy coined, right? “An immigrant nation.”
ROXANNE DUNBAR-ORTIZ: Yes, yes. John F. Kennedy, when he was senator, wrote a little book, published it, which has been a best-seller ever since, and it really seeped into the whole liberal culture, I would say. I don’t think right-wingers carry that book around. But it was called A Nation of Immigrants. And, of course, he was Catholic and a child of Irish immigrants, and this had never happened before, president that was not Anglo-Saxon or Scots-Irish and descended from the original settlers. So he had quite a hill to climb to make himself palatable.
So, I think that the way was already paved, I think, by the previous half-century or more with the work of the Knights of Columbus. The Knights were formed in 1882 and by Irish clerics. Most of the Irish famine immigrants who had come in the 1840s, really refugees, had — it took, you know, 20 or 30 years to sort of assimilate into — they had an advantage of speaking English, unlike the Italians, who came in the 1890s and turn of the century in great numbers. So, they absorbed. They really presented — the Catholic Church presented to the Italians this idea of the lineage of Columbus. And it was already there in the political or mythical culture in the United States. They actually discussed — I didn’t know this 'til I did the research — they actually discussed, the Founders, naming the United States Columbia, which is Latin for “the land of Columbus.” And that really was surprising to me, because I thought it was really more an invention of the late 19th century with the Knights of Columbus. But there is this mythology of Columbus as the founder of the United States, the actual founder of the United States. So, I think that attachment — that makes me better understand that attachment to Columbus statues everywhere, that is kind of in the — it's not spoken about, but it’s just kind of in the culture. And, of course, it is greatly amplified by Italians taking it up as a way of becoming Americanized.
And, of course, there was no Italy when Columbus — he was from Genoa, a city-state. He died in Spain. So, you know, it’s a very weak link to Italianness. And, of course, Italians have such illustrious people they can celebrate, that everyone celebrates — Michelangelo, Vivaldi and, of course, for us on the left, Sacco and Vanzetti.
You know, it really is — I think we have to really talk about this, and I think it’s important. You know, these symbols are very important for how people think, a kind of Americanism and, you know, a patriotism that is based on such falsehood, and the reality of slavery, enslavement of Africans, which is a part of that package of Columbus. The Holy See, the papal bulls had already given Africa to the Portuguese when Columbus came to the Americas, and then they gave — through a papal bull, 1493, gave all the Americas to the Spanish. They could enslave. It was the permission to enslave, legally, under the Holy Roman Empire. So, yeah, it’s a very, very deep history I tried to do, and not making it too archival and hard to read but just laying it out. And I think the book has a dynamism simply because I was learning so much as I wrote it.