What If The “White Man” Never Sailed West?

columbus day

Years ago I wrote a book – still in manuscript form – of maxims and two of them I might  attribute to the story of humans on the globe as it might pertain to the white man “cometh” to the western shores of the Atlantic Ocean.  Specifically as today is Columbus Day in the United States, I grew up in the world where we celebrated the Europeans who effectively discovered a land that was already there and populated seems foolish in its arrogance, and savage in its dismissiveness of those that had thriving civilizations that were laid to waste. Declaring the day Indigenous People’s Day is the least we can do as a society to acknowledge [the] Americas were not a planet devoid of life. 

The white man was bound to stumble upon the Americas. The Viking explorer  Leif Eriksson  and his party were the first Europeans to land on mainland North America. So there is no “what if”. All that was needed was water, sails, and in the case of the Vikings the sun compass and a translucent rock they called a sunstone to make their way across the ocean.  It’s more of when, where, and at what point in human affairs was civilization advanced enough to take the plunge into what we teach our children as The so-called Age of Exploration and consequent subjugation. 

We can’t blame Columbus, the Italian born explorer, whose trading expedition was backed by the Spanish monarchs King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. He thought he was going to China, India, and Asia by way of the Atlantic. Why would he think there were actually continents and land masses blocking the way? There was no Google Earth to tell him otherwise. When he first sighted Cuba in October of 1492 he thought it was mainland China. By his third journey he finally realized he had stumbled upon a completely “new world”. 

Later that October, Columbus sighted Cuba and believed it was mainland China; in December the expedition found Hispaniola, which he thought might be Japan. There, he established Spain’s first colony in the Americas with 39 of his men.  In March 1493, Columbus returned to Spain in triumph, bearing gold, spices and “Indian” captives. The explorer crossed the Atlantic several more times before his death in 1506.  It wasn’t until his third journey that Columbus finally realized he hadn’t reached Asia but instead had stumbled upon a continent previously unknown to Europeans.

But the damage was done. The “captives” were in chains. The hierarchy was established. The arrogance that the “white man” had the right “done by proclamation” was embedded with the same force as the anchor that kept the ships from drifting out to sea. We can’t blame him for his navigational errors but we can question his conduct upon arrival. 

After his first transatlantic voyage, Christopher Columbus sent an account of his encounters in the Americas to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain. Several copies of his manuscript were made for court officials, and a transcription was published in April 1493. This Latin translation was published the same year. In reporting on his trip to his sovereigns, Columbus wrote:  There I found very many islands, filled with innumerable people, and I have taken possession of them all for their Highnesses, done by proclamation and with the royal standard unfurled, and no opposition was offered to me.

The innumerable, unassuming and ultimately unlucky people were the Taíno people, whom he described in letters as “naked as the day they were born.” They were a sophisticated civilization who inhabited a good portion of the Caribbean at the time Columbus arrived and by 1550 the Taíno were close to extinction, many having succumbed to diseases brought by the Spaniards. 

Now you might ask what all this has to do with the United States? Columbus Day, the holiday, marks the anniversary of American life. 

The first Columbus Day celebration took place in 1792, when New York’s Columbian Order—better known as Tammany Hall—held an event to commemorate the historic landing’s 300th anniversary. Taking pride in Columbus’ birthplace and faith, Italian and Catholic communities in various parts of the country began organizing annual religious ceremonies and parades in his honor. 

 In 1892, President Benjamin Harrison issued a proclamation encouraging Americans to mark the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ voyage with patriotic festivities, writing, “On that day let the people, so far as possible, cease from toil and devote themselves to such exercises as may best express honor to the discoverer and their appreciation of the great achievements of the four completed centuries of American life.”

However, the darker side to the American way of life was the colonization of America at the expense of indigenous peoples whose lives were turned upside down with the arrival of men with guns, an agenda to territorial expansion, disease, fear of those who looked  different and whose world views and spiritual beliefs were beyond most white men’s comprehension. Yet, there was a precarious balance of co-existence that hung by a thread as both groups terrorized the other, with stories of some 200 known cases of white captives.  The attacks that took place on American soil against the native American Indians led the U.S. government to authorize over 1,500 wars, attacks and raids on Indians, the most of any country in the world against its Indigenous people.

By the close of the Indian Wars in the late 19th century, fewer than 238,000 Indigenous people remained, a sharp decline from the estimated 5 million to 15 million living in North America when Columbus arrived in 1492.

In recent decades there has been push back against celebrating Columbus Day – the symbol of this white expansion and subsequent genocide of people who had claim to these shores before any European boot planted its first footprint in the sand. What is sad is that Columbus Day was recognized as a national holiday in 1892 by President Benjamin Harrison to mark the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ “discovery” but also the holiday “was recognized in part to address the fierce prejudice, widespread discrimination and the lynching’s Italian Americans faced in the America of the time. The mass lynching of 11 Italian Americans in New Orleans in 1891 prompted creation of the holiday. Italian Americans were the second largest ethnic group to be lynched in the United States. Columbus Day is an integral part of the American and Italian American heritage. It was created to affirm the United States as a “nation of immigrants.” The Pledge of Allegiance was written to honor the day. While it is not exclusive to Italian American’s they have adopted it as their own day when they can freely and openly celebrate their American lives. Columbus Day allows Italian Americans to collectively celebrate their coming to America.

Over the years, despite upset from the Italian American community who feel that replacing Columbus day with Indigenous People’s Day would put Native Americans and Italian Americans on a collision course, more cities and states consider marking Indigenous Peoples Day instead of Columbus Day. In the 1980s, Colorado’s American Indian Movement chapter began protesting the celebration of Columbus Day . However, in 1992 it was the legendary city of Berkeley, California that organized the first “Indigenous Peoples Day,” a holiday the City Council soon formally adopted.

 Indigenous People’s Day has roots dating back to the 1977 Geneva UN Conference culminating with the resolution of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People adopted by the General Assembly in September 2007.  Many cities and states around the country celebrate Native American Day or Indigenous People’s Day from Seattle, to Los Angeles, to Alabama, to North Carolina which is home to 122,000 Native Americans. 

In an historic move and in his infinite wisdom President Biden in a statement on Friday, October 8, 2021 proclaimed October 11, 2021, as Indigenous Peoples’ Day . President Biden acknowledged both accomplishment and loss in his words as he made history becoming the first president to declare this a day of recognizing our nation’s Indigenous heritage. 

“Today, we recognize Indigenous peoples’ resilience and strength as well as the immeasurable positive impact that they have made on every aspect of American society.  We also recommit to supporting a new, brighter future of promise and equity for Tribal Nations — a future grounded in Tribal sovereignty and respect for the human rights of Indigenous people in the Americas and around the world.”

“The contributions that Indigenous peoples have made throughout history — in public service, entrepreneurship, scholarship, the arts, and countless other fields — are integral to our Nation, our culture, and our society.  Indigenous peoples have served, and continue to serve, in the United States Armed Forces with distinction and honor — at one of the highest rates of any group — defending our security every day.  And Native Americans have been on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic, working essential jobs and carrying us through our gravest moments.  Further, in recognition that the pandemic has harmed Indigenous peoples at an alarming and disproportionate rate, Native communities have led the way in connecting people with vaccination, boasting some of the highest rates of any racial or ethnic group.” 

“We must never forget the centuries-long campaign of violence, displacement, assimilation, and terror wrought upon Native communities and Tribal Nations throughout our country.”

In a special acknowledgement as both a Los Angeles based writer writing for a Los Angeles based zine I’d like to take this opportunity to highlight Los Angeles’ native tribe the Gabrieliño-Tongva people. If not for one special middle schooler, Juliet Margolin, I would not have known Los Angeles was home to an indigenous people whose lives were upended with the arrival of settlers. As a transplanted New Yorker I am further removed from California’s history let alone my adopted city. 

The Gabrielino-Tongva villages in the Los Angeles basin date back thousands of years. The villages grew up near bodies of water – “Los Angeles River, San Gabriel River, Santa Ana River and the coastal areas”. The ecosystem was balanced and clean with an abundance of fish and fresh water from the mountains. The neighboring tribes proved a “refuse” during times of assimilation and relocation. 

Gabrielino-Tongva villages/locations/rancherias/lodges sometimes overlapped at the boundaries with the Chumash, Tataviam, Serrano, Cahuilla, Juaneno and Luiseno Indians.  During the relocation and assimilation years, many found refuge with other tribes.

The Tongva’s story is sadly similar. The first official settlement in Los Angeles – as either El Pueblo de Nuestra Senora de los Angeles or El Pueblo de Nuestra Senora la Reyna de los Angeles – was in 1781 as the Spanish settlers upended the Gabrieliño-Tongva people. 

The movements of the Tongva peoples set the stage for what would eventually become Los Angeles. Their footpath through the Sepulveda Basin was the original 405 freeway. The L.A. State Historic Park was formerly a fertile basin within a mile of Yaanga, the Tongva people’s largest known village in the area. The Hahamog’na, a band of the Tongva peoples, settled along the Arroyo Seco river, which now comprises Northeast Los Angeles.

Through forced labor and enslavement of the Tongva the Spanish settlers grew their reach in the Los Angeles basin. 

“When the Spanish arrived in Southern California, they sought fertile land to produce the crops they were hoping to cultivate. This led them to the bountiful San Gabriel Valley (the San Gabriel Mission is credited as the first location of Spanish settlers in the area that became Los Angeles). Craig Torres of the Tongva community, through UCLA’s Mapping Indigenous L.A. project, explains how, prior to Spanish arrival, the San Gabriel Valley consisted of a “concentric circle” of native communities, which the Spanish recognized and exploited—they subsumed inter-connected communities into the Mission system, which was easier for them than accessing isolated communities along the coast (the dual name of Gabrieliño-Tongva comes from forced assimilation at the hands of the San Gabriel missionaries).”

The founding father, Junipero Serra, of the missions had a reputation for brutality against the indigenous people. It got so bad that the Tongva people revolted against the forced servitude. The Tongva people who lived in what is now downtown Los Angeles – originally the site of Yaanga, a large Tongva village – while far enough from the San Gabriel missions for less people to be forced “to convert and work for the padres” was close enough to the original Los Angeles pueblo and so were still exploited for manual labor.

Between the settlers, the gold rush and the path to statehood  the Tongva people were further disseminated. The more I read the more disgusted I got. 

In Los Angeles County, native people like the Tongva and Chumash were forced to convert to Christianity, change their names, and labor under missions. During the Mexican era, powerful ranchos turned many Native Californians into indentured servants. Southern California’s economy and infrastructure were largely built on the backs of those Native Americans who had managed to survive disease and starvation at the missions. But the worst was yet to come. With the discovery of gold in 1848, Americans rushed into California, California rushed into statehood, and newcomers eager to find gold and raise cattle suspended the established practice of making treaties with and assigning reservations to Indian nations.

With the promise of gold, and by association money and power, came the desire to turn California into a state. This led to a disregard of previous treaty practices that had granted land to the peoples, leaving most indigenous populations homeless, according to KCET. Downtown Los Angeles saw a de facto slave market of Tongva labor emerge, where people were imprisoned for being homeless and forced to work off their bail, often paid in liquor instead of cash. Chief red blood Anthony Morales told KCET’s Departures that “as time went on, as society started changing, we needed to blend in with the other ethnic groups in Los Angeles because there was a bounty on us. We had to blend in with different cultures and become part of their societies. We were thought of as the lowest people, ethnically and race-wise.” 

Finally after years of abuse, unratified treaties, and unsettled land claims in 1994, California signed   Senate Bill 1134 which “finally recognized the Gabrieliño-Tongva under state law”.  There were an estimated 5,000 to 10,000 Gabrieleño living in the region when the first Spanish settlers arrived in 1781 to establish Los Angeles. In 2008, there were 1700 documented members of the Gabrieliño-Tongva tribe.

Some additional highlights and horrors of Tongva history follows:

The Mexican-American War was settled by the Treaty of Guadalupe, which ceded California to the United States.  Treaty required the United States to maintain and protect California Indians, including the Gabrielino Tribe recognized to inhabit the geographic area of the Los Angeles Basin, in the free enjoyment of their liberty, property and religion.

Indian Reservations In 1851-53, three U.S. Government Treaty Commissioners appointed by President Fillmore signed the 18 “lost treaties”, setting aside 8.5 million acres in California for Indian reservations in return for the Indians’ quitclaim to 75 million acres of California land. 

The 18 “Lost Treaties”Enslavement By Missionaries And Early Settlers The 18 “lost treaties” enslavement by missionaries and early settlers, government-sponsored genocides against tribal groups, and the notorious 1851 Indian laws (allowing Indian child theft and slavery) are examples of savagery exercised, sponsored or condoned by the State of California. Even California’s judiciary participated in an apartheid-like history of racism.  See, e.g., People v. Hall (S.Ct. 1854), which enforced and expanded Section 394 of the Civil Practice Act providing “No Indian or Negro shall be allowed to testify as a witness in any action in which a White person is a party.”  Our Supreme Court reasoned, “The evident intention of the Act was to throw around the citizen a protection for life and property, which could only be secured by removing him above the corrupting influences of degraded castes.”

Lost Treaty Rights And Current Status The “18 lost treaties” recognized the Tongva but were never adopted. In 1950, under the Eisenhower policy of “Assimilation” of Native American Tribes, the Gabrielino-Tongva were effectively terminated.

Assimilation Policy The lands claim settlement effort begun in 1946 was incorporated into the “assimilation policy” of the Eisenhower Administration, expressed legislatively as House Concurrent Resolution 108 of 1953.  Unfortunately for the Gabrielino Tribe, the US Government decided to pay cash to individual Gabrielino Indians, in lieu of granting a land base to the Gabrielino Tribe. This “assimilation policy” also led to the termination of 53 Indian rancherias, some of which were eventually restored by a federal judge in Hardwick v. United States in 1983.

Ending The Abusive Chapters Of The State’s History Towards Indian Tribes When Governor Davis stated that he was ending the abusive chapters of the State’s history towards Indian tribes, by dealing with federally-recognized tribal sovereigns, he was only half right.  There are over 50 well-documented Indian tribes that have not been officially recognized by the federal government and have received no assistance from the State.  The Gabrielino-Tongva are one of two state-recognized tribes and the best-documented tribe in the State without federal recognition.

50,000 Native American Children Into White The Eisenhower policy of “assimilation” also lead to the adoption of over 50,000 Native American children into white, often suburban households (until the practice was ended by the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978).  The settlement of Gabrielino land claims and the “assimilation” of Gabrielino Indians was administered by Commissioner of Indian Affairs Dillon S. Meyer.  Mr. Meyer had previously distinguished himself as chief administrator of the Japanese internment camps in California.

Only One Tribe Is Recognized State recognition also goes to “who” the Tongva are, for only one Tribe is recognized.  Any attempt to separate the Tongva into “bands” might be helpful for those interested in multiple casino locations.  But recognizing several “bands” instead of one “Nation” would be contrary to California’s public policy. State recognition accompanied by substantial rights is appropriate for the same reasons that California has, without federal approval, undertaken separate pollution-control standards and other statewide initiatives.  We in California have a unique history, including a savage side against rather docile Native Americans.

Tongva History Loyola Marymount University, a conservative Catholic university, in 2000 dedicated a garden to the history of the Tongva in Westchester.  Marble plaques, granite walls and metal lettering describe two thousand years of Tongva history in the area, their cultural beliefs, and ends with a quotation from Martin Alcala, a current Council member. The LMU library exhibits artifacts from two Tongva village sites unearthed during construction of the Leavy campus. The Tongva were enslaved to build the San Gabriel Mission in the City of San Gabriel and the San Fernando Mission in the City of Los Angeles.  Other Gabrielino village sites were discovered at Cal State Long Beach, the Sheldon Reservoir in Pasadena and in Los Encinos State Historical Park in Encino.

In 1994, the State of California recognized the Tongva in Assembly Joint Resolution 96, chaptered by the California Secretary of State as Resolution chapter 146, Statutes of 1994.  The Joint Resolution states that the State of California “recognizes the Gabrielino-Tongva Nation as the aboriginal tribe of the Los Angeles Basin and takes great pride in recognizing the Indian inhabitance of the Los Angeles Basin and the continued existence of the Indian community”.

De Facto Recognition This history of de facto recognition, while conspicuously avoiding official recognition, began to crumble in 1994, when the State of California officially recognized the Gabrielino-Tongva Tribe.  The Gabrielino-Tongva Tribe is currently seeking federal recognition through 3 separate channels: legislation before Congress; a petition for federal acknowledgment with the BIA, together with a second BIA petition for prior acknowledgment; and a planned “de facto termination” lawsuit in federal court.  The BIA petitions are complete and will be submitted after adoption by the Tribal Council in late June or early July 2003.

The Europeans did sail west. We can’t play that “what if” game. But I do wonder “what if” the European settlers came without an attitude of dominance and superiority? I ask the “what if ” question as if it doesn’t happen five hundred years later in various parts of the world. Kudos to President Biden on this long overdue watershed moment – to recognize the indigenous cultures that are the bedrock of the land we take for granted. Perhaps it was the settler’s responsibility to assimilate and not the Native Americans who had to assimilate and convert and be forced into manual labor? Then die by diseases they never had before. Perhaps if these tribes and individual groups were allowed to live out a sovereign destiny where they thrived rather than declined we would not now be a country founded in division and aversion of the “other” regardless of whether the other is different in appearance or ideology. 

What if we could live in that world?

Author: Sherri Margolin (Dark Matters)

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