Water Man Spouts

Monday, October 08, 2007

Coulmbus Day

I have a lot of good memories of Onondaga Chief Paul Waterman. We used to have fun around Columbus Day. Different groups of people would come to Indian support group meetings with questions or suggestions, and area news reporters would call me to try to get a chance to interview Paul. It’s always interesting to see people from different cultures interact, and to see that when different cultures intersect, there is a lot of potential for both good or bad.

I remember good people asking Paul if he thought we should "protest" Columbus Day? And he would say that no, we should always start by thinking that if we are trying to interact with others, we need to understand where they stand, so that we can best communicate our message. And he said that while a lot of American people don’t really think about Columbus Day, that many others see it as a very positive thing. Paul said it would be an error to insult Italian-Americans by being aggressively anti-Columbus Day.

Chief Waterman said that the best thing we could do, was to take the opportunity to teach a more accurate history of what Columbus Day meant in terms of human history. He said that human beings do not learn the best when they are being attacked, insulted, or made to feel guilty about something – especially if it was something done by their ancestors’ ancestors. Instead, it is good to try to explore how different people view Columbus, and why.

Young people are usually the most interested in learning these things. When they reach a certain age, they develop a strong sense of right versus wrong, and sometimes feel outrage about historical injustices. We had some visits from college students who belonged to Native American or "students of color" groups. Paul loved them. A few of these were what we might call "militant." Paul used to teach that the most militant weapon we have is our minds, and that students should focus their minds on what is real, today.

A few times, we would have individuals who were from agencies with very different ideas on what is real today attempt to infiltrate and influence us. I remember one, who I will call "Ed" (Ed being his name), who always talked tough and advocated stupidity. He used to say we "had" to disrupt local Columbus Day parades by doing things like breaking 40 ounce bottles of "Crazy Horse Malt Liquor" in front of the people who are celebrating their heritage.

Chief Waterman had me tell Ed that no, that was not our way. That wasn’t the message we wanted to communicate. But Ed insisted that we weren’t true warriors. Paul had me give him a message which would convince his boss not to send him to us again. I laugh when I think back to that!

Chief Waterman could always make people laugh, at least most people. I remember when there was a group from the United Nations, talking to Indigenous Peoples about modern concerns. These were very serious meetings, and sometimes things that caused tension were discussed. During one very serious discussion, Chief Waterman "demanded" that the UN build three ships named the Pinto, the Nina, and the Santa Maria, that would be large enough to hold all the Euro-Americans. He said, "It was really nice that you came to visit. But you should probably be going home now."

Chief Waterman always got a kick out of the reporters who wanted to talk to him in the week before Columbus Day. He would tell them that Indians are Real People, and that good reporters should be using things like Columbus Day and Thanksgiving as vehicles to discuss the real issues that Native People face today.

One of his favorite tools for communicating the Native People’s message was a small book called "A Basic Call to Consciousness." I recently saw it re-issued in book stores, and it can be found on the internet. In September of 1977, the Non-Governmental Organizations of the United Nations held meetings in Geneva, Switzerland. Various Native People made presentations on the problems they face. The Haudenosaunee, or "Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy," made a fascinating presentation about how the current "modern society" abuses not only Native People and the environment, but is destroying their own sense of humanity.

And maybe that is the most important thing we should be focused on today. I think that we need young people who have the courage of a Christopher Columbus, and who will be brave enough to explore new ways of being Human Beings today.


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