Indigenous Peoples' Day Was Long Overdue

Can we finally give natives their own place back to them?

Columbus was discovered by native Americans on this day. For too long it was wrongly named as “Columbus Day,” glorifying the explorer, rather than giving respect and acknowledging the existence of the indigenous tribes of America who lived there long before Columbus.

The rightful place of indigenous people & their culture must be restored. Media must stop the hate & phobia against native cultures. Every other day we see some news coverage mocking indigenous cultures, making fun of their traditions, pointing out how “unscientific” they are, without any sensitivity to traditions which have existed and survived longer than the dynasties which sought to destroy them.

Destruction of Native Cultures

A big part of the world today has faced massive colonization and systematic destruction of native cultures by Western dynasties in the past. The destruction of indigenous cultures was neither required, nor good for anybody, except the colonizers, for whom this cultural genocide paved an easy path to enslave natives. Traditions bond us together. They give us a sense of feeling rooted. They keep us connected to the five elements of nature and our values which serve as the North Star in troubling times. Not all traditions are bad. Most are innocuous at best, healing, and some are powerful in their ability to transform a person. The West, in their obsession with modern medicine, framed all such traditions as “witchcraft,” “devilry,” “voodoo,” “black magic” and worse epithets. By such mischaracterization, they destroyed all legitimacy of native traditions and cultures.

In most countries the natives are just one more race, one more community, rather than respected as the original inhabitants of the country. Probably the only exception I have discovered to this norm is New Zealand, where Maoris reclaimed their rightful place in their own land and their language and culture are still prominent in everyday life. Most other countries which were colonized have no such place in their country today, and/or have to still face media using trifling terms for their culture.

Religious Conversions on a War Footing

Religion is probably one area where the maximum damage occurred. A big chunk of Africa, Asia, Australia, New Zealand, Latin America have been hijacked by religious conversion to Abrahamic religions, destroying native cultures and religious practices to the point of wiping them out and making a mockery of the religious beliefs.

European missionaries exploited the economic situation of these countries to their advantage, and in the process left a trail of religious destruction behind them. This is, to date, one of the least talked about matters in the world, which need visibility and concern.

For example:

“The empirical results show that descendants of ethnic groups that experienced greater missionary contact are today more likely to self-identify as Christian.”

Religious Conversion in Colonial Africa, Nathan Nunn, American Economic Review, May 2010

This is a miniscule example of a larger problem. When religious propagation happens at the cost of native culture, it is a problem, because much of the knowledge of lifestyle passed down over generations is lost forever. The chain is broken. The sources of knowledge are gone and the culture can no longer be revived, or even known in a few more decades. The colonizers never acknowledged the destruction they waged on cultures, nor offered any apology for the same. This, combined with enslaving of not just the body but minds of natives, left behind an amorphous mass of people who no longer knew who they were, and what freedom really meant, even if they were legally a free people. There was a lack of direction after becoming “free,” because there was simply no going back to who they were before they were tormented by the colonizers.

Wars are not just those that are fought with arms and ammunition. Such massive destruction of values, value systems, healing systems, spiritual knowledge and a framework that bonds people together is a different kind of war.

Media Mechanics of Mis-Reporting

It is ironic and laughable that international media, like Washington Post, New York Times, CNN, Time etc churn out scores of news reports per day against racism and asking for a more equitable society, but at the same time continuously project “the third world” as poor, deprived, inferior, lacking, and overall too backward to learn anything from. The “developing world” must always be an object of pity rather than a place that deserves respect simply for surviving the colonial powers, if nothing else.

I have met too many Europeans and Americans in the past one decade, who still think that elephants walk in the streets of India and that I must have grown up studying by the light of an oil lamp because India is such a poor country. I could not find the words to tell them that I have never lived without electricity in my whole life (except on a trek, but that doesn’t count). They also congratulate me on how excellent my English is, because since I am Indian I must speak in broken English, because only the colonizers can excel in the language of the colonizers.

There is still poverty in many countries but there is a lot more to these countries than just poverty. And even in our poverty we have the ability to find wisdom and cherish it.

Media is much poorer than us because they have not yet found the ability to gather this wisdom.

This hypocrisy—because that is what it is—is now plainer than daylight. On the one hand they divide people of different communities by labeling them as whites, yellows, browns, blacks, as if we are slices of toast and not living breathing humans, and on the other hand they continue their phobia and castigation of native cultures, doing absolutely nothing to salvage the damage already done. Worse, the matter gets heavily politicized and polarized, leading to worse outcomes than doing nothing.

Crimes are Historic, Problems are Current

The crimes against the native people are historic, but their problems are far from over. Such dehumanizing of natives has long lasting impact on multiple generations. Its effect cannot be realistically measured, and hence, is conveniently overlooked and forgotten.

The burning forests of the Amazon are one such problem. Unchecked Islamization and thus radicalisation of many countries is another such problem. If natives of these places had been left alone, none of these problems would have emerged. The environment would still be intact and we would not be smouldering in the heat of the burning forests all over the world, breaking summer records every year. Terrorist attacks in Africa get hardly any coverage in the media. Most people don’t think of Africa at all when they think of terrorism. Europe and America hog all the limelight, while radicalization continues unabated in African countries, with no power to check them. Simply talking about it gets quickly stamped out and rebuffed as “Islamophobia” by the media and sympathizers of extremism.

Columbus symbolizes the start of the problem. That is why changing the name of the day was important. But it does not end there. Changing the name won’t mean anything if we don’t force media, politicians, vested interest lobbies, missionaries, Islamists to change their stand and approach towards indigenous people and their culture. For starters, there must be a complete stop to labelling all such people as “heathens,” “kafirs,” and all related terminology. We are all humans here, on the same old planet. Nobody owns it. Nobody ever owned it and nobody ever will. So let’s stop trying to: let’s start with that.

Photo 1 by Trevor Cole on Unsplash

Photo 2 by Bob Brewer on Unsplash