Joe was hired by the Will Steger Foundation to begin to address the question: “What can WSF and YEA! MN do to become more open, available, and useful to people of color and lower-income people?” Traditionally, WSF has been a predominantly white organization and it’s YEA! MN program has drawn in a predominantly white group of high school students. Lately, the organization has started to have more conversations about what this reality reflects. We began to question what the skin color of those involved with WSF says about our organization. Joe will write a monthly blog about his work and will organize a series of workshops and conversations about equity at the WSF for the WSF staff.
In the year 1492, an Italian explorer named Cristafaro Colombo crossed the Atlantic Ocean and landed in what he thought was Asia. He and his crew had actually arrived in what is now known as Cuba, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic. There he encountered the indigenous people of the islands, the Lucayan, Taíno, and Arawak. The attitude of Columbus toward the people he met can best be summarized in one of his journal entries:
“They ought to make good and skilled servants, for they repeat very quickly whatever we say to them. I think they can very easily be made Christians, for they seem to have no religion. If it pleases our Lord, I will take six of them to Your Highnesses when I depart, in order that they may learn our language.” (Robert H. Fuson, ed., The Log of Christopher Columbus, Tab Books, 1992, International Marine Publishing, ISBN 0-87742-316-4.)
Columbus made four journeys to the Americas. The entrapment and enslavement of indigenous peoples, the theft of indigenous peoples’ resources, the spread of disease, and rape characterized his trips. His journeys summarize and shed light on a European, and what would soon become an “American” ideological framework built around the commodification of people and land. The “Americas” and the indigenous people who lived there became for Columbus an expendable pawn in his society’s economy and religion.
It is imperative that those of us involved in climate change and environmental activism understand this history, how it characterizes the ways in which Europeans and indigenous people interact, and how it sheds light onto the deeply embedded, cultural and economic causes of climate change.
The same mentality of commodification of people and land that made it so easy for Columbus to enact such violence on indigenous people, is the same ideology that has our American society so addicted to fossil fuels. We repeatedly break treaties with Native American tribes, poison the water and land of the poor and marginalized, and have propelled the earth into a period of climate chaos that will disproportionately harm poor people and people of color. Through Columbus’s true story we see the ongoing problem, we see the darkness and pain hidden behind this national hero and his national holiday.
Last month, the Minneapolis City Council voted unanimously to name October 13th Indigenous Peoples’ Day as well as Columbus Day. This decision represents a huge step forward in telling the truth of the past, building a foundation for reconciliation, and shedding light on the unacknowledged violent ideologies that still infect our society today. We should be proud of our city. However, Columbus Day will still be celebrated. The truth about his journeys to the “Americas” will remain hidden or unacknowledged in parts of this city, state, and country. Additionally, we are still reliant on a colonizing energy system that robs indigenous people and other disenfranchised communities of resources, land, and health. Even though our City Council’s policy change was bold and important, it is imperative that we start to see that this holiday name-change must be indicative of a larger, more necessary system change, that puts people and land before profit and power.