Today we again employ revisionist history to celebrate as a hero, Christopher Columbus, purportedly the discoverer of America.
The only problem with this revised history is, Columbus didn’t discover an uninhabited land — America — he invaded it! It was already populated by numerous indigenous tribes.
That fact bothered Columbus not at all. In his desire to provide wealth for his royal patrons, Columbus and his crews robbed, raped and stole whatever they found. This practice was, at the time, condoned by Papal Bulls, which stated any non-Christians could be considered non- or sub-human, and their properties and wealth taken.
A great beginning for a so-called Christian explorer.
Multiple treaties made between tribes and the invading Europeans were broken as soon as it became expedient for the whites to do so; treaties guaranteeing Indians land, water, fishing and hunting rights, and other resources. To date there is no unbroken treaty between Indians and white governments in the United States.
Treaties signed by Wabanaki People and the federal government during the 1700s and 1800s implied the United States recognized Indians as sovereign. Yet, even U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Marshall, who in 1831 wrote that Indians lived in “distinct political communities having territorial boundaries within which their authority is exclusive,” called these tribes “domestic dependent nations” which “occupy territory to which we assert title independent of their will.” So much for justice.
This is past history, you say? In 2003, the Penobscot Nation’s and Passamaquoddy tribe’s joint attempts to expand gaming to include a casino were soundly defeated by public vote, supposedly because gaming wasn’t good for them. Can you imagine the outcry had that arrogance and paternalism been directed at whites?
At the same time as the “no” on Indian casinos, two white guys got approval for a racino in Bangor. Can you say racism?
Why are we so determined to deny Indians the rights our own governments have allowed them? Fear is the major factor. All “our” land belonged to Indians, and was either stolen outright from them or bought for ridiculous amounts.
We’ve tried many horrific means of destroying both the individuals and the cultures, thankfully unsuccessfully. Not to say we’ve learned; we’re still trying. Recent Penobscot attempts to regain their land held in “trust” by the government were denied because “they might build a casino on it.”
How can this sordid picture of continuing persecution and discrimination be changed?
One way is for each of us to deliberately get to know Indians in our own areas. Attend the open events, pow-wows and ceremonies. Forgo the retreat into stereotypes; remember the poor worldwide have the same problems; disrespect, malnourisment, substance abuse, few employable skills. Each human being has multiple abilities; we see only some of them, and judge people by what we see.
Another way is to elect government officials who are interested in representing all their constituents, not just the rich and white. To do this, we need to ask piercing questions about candidates’ positions on Indian sovereignty, on full rights of Indians, including voting membership in the state government, on economic development for Indians. And then we need to hold their feet to the fire and require them to keep their campaign promises. By doing this we can change Maine and America from colonial egotism and racism to genuine equality
Jean Rohrer is a member of the Episcopal Committee on Indian Relations.