The Public Art Fund and the City of New York, along with such sponsors as Time Warner, Bloombeg LP, and the Related Companies, are funding a project that would pay homage to Christopher Columbus. The Japanese artist Tatzu Nishi has chosen to design a "room" to be built around the Columbus statue in midtown Manhattan's Columbus Circle. He believes his choice of this statue is appropriate because, in his words, "Columbus discovered America." The project is expected to attract thousands of visitors. But will those visitors understand the legacy of the man being celebrated?
In 1492 Christopher Columbus landed on an island in the Caribbean that he thought was part of Asia. This event set the stage for two of the largest genocides in history. Columbus enslaved the local population and shipped slaves to Spain. People were maimed and murdered for the slightest offence.
In addition to the destruction of Native people, there was a huge expansion of the African slave trade. Millions of African people died on their way across the Atlantic, and millions more died from exhaustion, torture and outright murder at the hands of brutal slave traders and slave owners.
There are those who insist that since this was the way of the world 500 years ago, there is no need to single out Columbus.
What many people don't realize is the genocides that Columbus started are not over. According to the Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of the American States, between the years 1971 and 1986 some 40,000 people "disappeared" in Guatemala while 10,000 were openly murdered. The majority were Native people -- descendants of the Maya.
And it is no longer necessary for the calvary to attack and murder as many as 300 men, women and children, as was done at Wounded Knee in 1890. There are other ways to destroy a people.
Slavery "officially" ended only to be replaced by years of so-called Jim Crow laws and later on the de facto segregation and discrimination that continue to this day. This legacy of racism could not be more evident than in the mass incarceration of people of color in the United States, where we have 5% of the world's population but 25% of its prisoners, most of them black and brown men.
In America's towns and cities many, if not most, African Americans and other people of color live in substandard housing, go to substandard schools, and have the worst jobs (if they can find any). This cycle of poverty still goes on, generation after generation.
For the Native population, what little land left after years of continuously broken treaties is being exploited by multinational companies for its mineral wealth. In some places the water is not fit to drink nor the air fit to breathe. At the Red Rock mine in Arizona alone, it is estimated that 70% of the Diné (Navajo) uranium miners will die of lung cancer and related diseases.
Not only that, life on what is left of the reservations is bleak. The poverty level is at least 30% and unemployment 50%. There is rampant alcoholism, diabetes and other health problems. The suicide rate is well above the national average and three times the national average for teenagers.
Cultural genocide is another factor. For years thousands of Native children were forced into boarding schools where they were deprived of their culture, punished for speaking their language, and abused sexually. Sexual abuse in religious institutions continues to this day. And children deemed at risk are taken from their parents and given to whites despite the fact that other family members -- grandparents, aunts and uncles -- beg to be allowed to raiser them.
This then is the legacy of Columbus. How can we honor such a man? Why not honor some of the heroes and heroines from among those who suffered because of him -- Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass, Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull?
Columbus is credited with the discovery of America. In other words, the millions living in the Americans at the time of his arrival don't count. They are not considered people. How could he have "discovered" land already so well populated? Did Admiral Perry discover Japan? Did Marco Polo discover China?
Please tell the Public Art fund and the other sponsors to stop this project. It is an insult to the Native populations in this hemisphere and to Indigenous people around the world.
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