Oct. 11 was Indigenous People’s Day. In a proclamation issued Oct. 8, President Joe Biden became the first president to recognize the day as such. At first glance, the proclamation seems like an adequate recognition of human rights abuses endured by Indigenous peoples in North America. But upon further review, some issues become clear.
The word ‘genocide’ is entirely missing. The proclamation reads: “We must never forget the centuries-long campaign of violence, displacement, assimilation, and terror wrought upon Native communities and Tribal Nations throughout our country.” Biden’s phrases are entirely in the past tense as if this was a terrible thing that we have done but now we are fixing it. Another line reads: “For generations, Federal policies systematically sought to assimilate and displace Native people and eradicate Native cultures.”
Of course, abuse of our Indigenous brothers and sisters is not a thing of the past. In President Biden’s proclamation he notes a memorandum he issued that reaffirmed, “our Nation’s solemn trust and treaty obligations to American Indian and Alaska Native Tribal Nations.” Biden’s own record as vice president during the Obama administration suggests that these are empty words.
In April 2016, water protectors from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe began protesting the building of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), operated by Energy Transfer Partners, Phillips 66, Enbridge and Marathon Petroleum. This was a more than 1,000-mile-long oil pipeline through Sioux Nation land and the town of Standing Rock’s sole water source. Amnesty International said at the time, “The pipeline project is a violation of Indigenous people’s human rights—and so is the excessive police response to protests against the project.” Police met protesters with tear gas, pepper spray, and a slew of other inhumane means to suppress dissent. In May 2017, 100 documents concerning a private security company named TigerSwan, which was hired by the operators of the pipeline, were leaked to The Intercept. Alleen Brown, Will Parrish and Alice Speri wrote:
"TigerSwan spearheaded a multifaceted private security operation characterized by sweeping and invasive surveillance of protesters. As policing continues to be militarized and state legislatures around the country pass laws criminalizing protest, the fact that a private security firm retained by a Fortune 500 oil and gas company coordinated its efforts with local, state, and federal law enforcement to undermine the protest movement has profoundly anti-democratic implications."
In July 2017, Standing Rock Sioux sued the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for granting permits that authorized construction through sovereign Sioux territory. That September, U.S. District Judge James Boasberg ruled that building of the DAPL would be allowed to proceed, but one day later, President Barack Obama moved to suspend construction of the pipeline. In actuality, this move did nothing. Days later, construction continued.
In late September of that year, 19 members of Congress sent a letter to President Obama asking him to pull the federal permits, which he had done with the Keystone Pipeline. In early December, the Obama Administration sent in the Army Corps of Engineers to block construction of the pipeline. Without pulling the permits, of course, this was pure performativity as not much more than a month later, on Jan. 24, 2017, President Donald Trump signed an executive order that advanced construction of the DAPL.
The emptiness of Biden’s pledge continues into his presidency. Earlier this month, Enbridge’s Line 3 pipeline began operations and is expected to be fully operational, transporting 760,000 barrels of tar sand a day by November. Enbridge is responsible for the largest inland oil spill in the United States. The pipeline was built through territory of the Anishinaabe peoples. Similar to the case of the DAPL, the building of Line 3 was met with fierce resistance and elicited a violent response from the state. Throughout all the protests, more than 600 people have been arrested. Michael Sainato notes,
"On 30 July, water protectors at Line 3 were subjected to pepper spray and rubber bullets during a series of arrests, and protesters who’ve been jailed have reported mistreatment from officers such as lack of proper food, solitary confinement and denial of medications."
Also missing from President Biden’s proclamation was any mention of Christopher Columbus, the individual who would have been celebrated on Oct. 11 if Indigenous People’s Day were not recognized. For many historians, the voyage Columbus set out on in 1492 marks the switch in period from the Middle Ages to Modernity. Columbus would set the stage for vast systems of exploitation and genocide. By not acknowledging whose day Indigenous People’s Day replaces, President Biden is allowing history to be overlooked.
In Columbus’ very first interaction with the Indigenous Arawak people in the Bahamas he took prisoners. When he and his crew made it to Hispaniola (modern-day Dominican Republic and Haiti) they established Fort Navidad, the first European military base in the Western Hemisphere. In 1495, Columbus, frustrated with the lack of gold on Hispaniola, attempted to take slaves. Howard Zinn writes,
“Too many of the slaves died in captivity. And so Columbus, desperate to pay back dividends to those who had invested, had to make good his promise to fill the ships with gold. In the province of Cicao on Haiti, where he and his men imagined huge gold fields to exist, they ordered all persons fourteen years or older to collect a certain quantity of gold every three months. When they brought it, they were given copper tokens to hang around their necks. Indians found without a copper token had their hands cut off and bled to death…Trying to put together an army of resistance, the Arawaks faced Spaniards who had armor, muskets, swords, horses. When the Spaniards took prisoners they hanged them or burned them to death. Among the Arawaks, mass suicides began, with cassava poison. Infants were killed to save them from the Spaniards. In two years, through murder, mutilation, or suicide, half of the 250,000 Indians on Haiti were dead.”
This barbarity in the Caribbean would become the norm. Writing in 1550, Bartolomé de las Casas, a priest who had become disillusioned with European conquest over the West Indies, provides, as a primary source, the exact nature of the inhumanity with which Spaniards treated the Indigenous. He wrote, “I call the Spaniards who plunder that unhappy people torturers…For God’s sake and man’s faith in him, is this the way to impose the yoke of Christ on Christian men?” He catalogued offense after offense against the Indians continuing, “our work was to exasperate, ravage, kill, mangle and destroy.”
The conquests led by Francisco Pizarro and Hernán Cortés were comparably brutal. Cortés had participated in the conquest of Cuba after 1509. In 1519, Cortés began threatening, manipulating, and exploiting divisions within the Indigenous population in modern-day Mexico, mounting an army capable of taking down a civilization. In August 1521, Cortés successfully captured the capital city of the Aztecs, Tenochtitlan, killing as many as 100,000 Indigenous people in the last battle alone. Pizarro had similar “success” conquering the Incan Empire. Upon meeting the Incan King Atahualpa, Pizarro presented him with a Bible. When Atahualpa rejected it, a battle ensued whereby, according to one Spanish account, “In the space of two hours…six or seven thousand Indians lay dead on the plain and many more had their arms cut off and other wounds.” The rest of Incan conquest resembled this.
This is what the European endeavor in the Western Hemisphere has looked like historically. Ethnic cleansing is not just a byproduct of settler colonialism, it is entirely inextricable from it. A society being built by colonizing settlers is meant to exist independently from any existing society, making the interests of preexisting societies diametrically opposed to the interests of settlers. As Patrick Wolfe writes, “Settler colonialism destroys to replace.”
The interests of settler societies were diverse and the exploitation of natives took many forms. As Howard Zinn wrote about the United States, “Indian Removal, as it has been politely called, cleared the land for white occupancy between the Appalachians and the Mississippi, cleared it for cotton in the South and grain in the North, for a huge continental empire clear across to the Pacific Ocean.” It was, “necessary for the opening of American lands to agriculture, to commerce, to markets, to money, to the development of the modern capitalist economy.
In some cases, the intersection of interests would manifest in a single instance. Wolfe zeros in on one forced relocation that took place prior to the Trail of Tears, comparable to many removals that also took place in the 1830s. He writes,
"The cattle and other stock were not only being driven off Cherokee land; they were being driven into private ownership. Once evacuated, the Red man’s land would be mixed with Black labour to produce cotton, the white gold of the Deep South... Moreover, in their indiscriminate lust for any value that could be extracted from the Cherokee’s homeland, these racialized grave-robbers are unlikely to have stopped at the pendants. The burgeoning science of craniology, which provided a distinctively post eighteenth-century validation for their claim to a racial superiority that entitled them to other people’s lands, made Cherokee skulls too marketable a commodity to be overlooked. In its endless multidimensionality, there was nothing singular about this one sorry removal, which all of modernity attended."
If we know President Biden is still complicit in the legacy of settler colonialism, there is no reason to expect him to acknowledge the past to its fullest genocidal extent. However, in obscuring the truth, the importance of changing Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day will be lost. Wittenberg University didn’t give us the day off to acknowledge the survivors of genocide. All staff worked right through Monday. It is time we do better. If we don’t recognize the nature of our society’s foundation and the continued offenses against Indigenous people, the violence may never stop.