November 13, 2019

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A TAINO DESCENDANT SPEAKS ON COLUMBUS

A TAINO DESCENDANT SPEAKS ON COLUMBUS
Engraving of Columbus arriving at Hispaniola. Courtesy of the US Library of Congress

Columbus is my least favorite word.

Columbus Day, Columbus statues, towns named after Columbus, streets and circles and squares named Columbus, Columbus parks—I have a problem with all of them, and likely always will. After all, my Puerto Rican family taught me at a young age that Christopher Columbus was a “bad man” who killed people, and I always remembered this simple fact, building on it each year as I gained more knowledge that supported it.

So by the third grade, when my teacher asked the class what Christopher Columbus was famous for, I threw my hand into the air before anyone else.

“Yes, Gabrielle?”

“For killing my ancestors,” I answered loudly, and my teacher never looked at me in quite the same way again. Whereas he had previously been warm and encouraging, after I expressed my distaste for Columbus, he consistently responded to me in one-word answers and received me with a scathing sarcasm that even me and my classmates, at eight years old, could detect.

“He probably thought you were making things difficult,” my mom said. “They don’t teach about Columbus like that in schools.”

I said, “But it’s the truth,” and learned quickly that people often do not like hearing the truth when they find it too complicated or messy. They would rather ignore such complexities, leaving them for the affected demographics to deal with alone.

As a woman of color, for instance, my life has always been complicated. I have never had the luxury of ignoring oppression or discrimination, because those issues directly affect myself and my family. Hard truths are not things I can push away or deny the existence of.

I understand why my audacious answer in the third grade might have made my teacher uncomfortable, but as an adult, I am even less sympathetic to him now than I was then. I find it shameful that an educator, when challenged by a third grader, denied historical facts and responded to the child with pettiness.

Furthermore, the ensuing sixteen years have only augmented my emotional and intellectual rebuttals to Columbus and the day that has been chosen to celebrate him. This year, as if to pile on more offenses, Columbus Day falls on the same day as Canadian Thanksgiving.

In the United States and Canada, Thanksgiving is celebrated on different days, but in both cases rewrites the conquest narrative in the Americas to make it seem as though violence did not play into conquest—as though one feast in New England both subdued native populations and solidified Europeans’ place in the Americas.

I remember feeling uncomfortable as a small child when it came time to dress as “pilgrims and Indians.” I was always one of very few children who insisted on being an Indian.

“I don’t want to be an Indian. They’re the bad guys,” other kids would say.

They were referencing Westerns and the white-centric Manifest Destiny narrative we were fed in school and popular culture. At the time, I did not yet have the vocabulary or the emotional intelligence to explain that those things made me uncomfortable, because the “Indian bad guys”—the ones knocked off their horses only to have a gun cocked and pointed at their heads—looked like me.

It is for this reason that Columbus Day should be changed to Indigenous People’s Day, that Canadians have fought for the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, and that my family has adapted our own Thanksgiving celebration to fit into our personal, familial, and ancestral context.

Engraving c.1600 by Theodore de Bey, entitled “Spanish Roasting Tainos”

On my mother’s side of the family, we can trace our roots back to the Taíno Indians, who once populated several Caribbean islands including Puerto Rico, Cuba, Hispaniola (the Dominican Republic and Haiti), the Bahamas, and Jamaica. Christopher Columbus, however, introduced the mass rape, genocide, and enslavement of the Taínos. Over the course of a few decades, his actions would lead to the destruction of thousands of years’ worth of culture and civilization. In my eyes, the oppression of First Nations across the United States, Canada, and Latin America truly began with Columbus and followed the violent example that he set.

“I don’t know why you’re taking Columbus Day so personally,” an Irish friend once told me.

“That happened too long ago to matter, you know?”

“Would you say the same thing about what Cromwell did to Ireland?” I asked.

He said, “That’s different,” but he could not come up with a reason why.

Quietly, I wondered, Is it because the Taínos weren’t white?

According to the Smithsonian Magazine, 19,839 Puerto Ricans identified as American Indian in the 2010 census.1 Factoring in Taíno descendants from other parts of the Caribbean, one realizes that there are so many of us left that it is blatantly disrespectful to continue celebrating Columbus Day. Furthermore, to laud this historical figure—to erect statues and name schools in his honor—is to applaud a man who, along with his contemporaries, would have impeded my very existence if he had fully succeeded in his genocide.

When I was in the fifth grade, I told my teacher that I didn’t like Columbus Day. He laughed when I explained why.

“Yeah, yeah, I know about all that,” he admitted, “but come on, I can’t hate him. He’s Italian –like me!”

He wouldn’t be the last person to give me this reason for loving Columbus. It is important to note that Italy was not a cohesive nation during Columbus’ time but was a collection of loosely allied states. Columbus, therefore, would not have even considered himself Italian in the way Italian-Americans do now—but I digress.

It always puzzled me that so many people would support a homicidal, notoriously unstable man in the name of heritage when there are so many other famous Italians worthy of celebration—Cicero, St. Francis of Assissi, Dante Alighieri, Niccolo Machiavelli, Michelangelo, Raphael, Artemisia Gentileschi, Giacomo Puccini, Elena Cornaro Piscopia, Federico Fellini, Sophia Loren, Vittorio De Sica, Roberto Rossellini, and Rita Levi-Montalcini, just to name a few.

I’d much rather celebrate Cicero Day than Columbus Day. After all, I imagine that Austrians would sooner tout Mozart than Hitler.

I often think about my fifth-grade teacher and his pride in Columbus, because it disturbs me that American educators would openly celebrate and defend someone who initiated the mass rape, murder, and brutalization of thousands of people across Latin America.

I also think of what I would have said to this teacher if we were to have that conversation now. Retrospect, unfortunately, often generates the best rebuttals.

I would point out to my former teacher that whenever he wants to, he can celebrate his culture by engaging with Italian traditions. For instance, if he wants to know what his ancestors listened to, he can listen to canti epico lirici or canti lirico monostrofici. If he wants something more classical or operatic, he can listen to the likes of Vivaldi, Rossini, and Puccini. If he wants to dance the way his ancestors danced, he can choose from the Tarantella, the Pizzica, or the Saltarello. These traditions, among others, have been treasured for hundreds of years because Italian populations have survived in large enough numbers to preserve them.

As a Taíno, what do I have?

Still of Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner (2001, Zacharias Kunuk) | Image source: Isuma Igloolik Productions.
Still of Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner (2001, Zacharias Kunuk) | Image source: Isuma Igloolik Productions.

Months ago, I saw an Inuit movie called Atanarjuat (2001). At the end of the film, a song in the native language of Inuktitut plays over the end credits, and I found myself moved to tears as the sequence drew to a close. I cried not because of the content of the story or the song itself, but because I experienced a profound sense of loss.

We can only speculate, based on a smattering of artifacts and piecemeal notes written by Spanish missionaries, about what the Taíno Indians of Puerto Rico would have sung or listened to. Furthermore, the Taíno language has just about died— Taíno words such as canoe, hammock, and barbecue have trickled into modern English, but Taíno is nevertheless a language that Wikipedia calls “poorly-attested” and Encyclopedia Britannica refers to as “now-extinct.”

Thus, it struck me during the closing credits of Atanarjuat that as descendants of the Taíno Indians, we will never be able to make a film in our native language with music from before the Spanish invasion. I cried because a tremendous piece of my personal history was stolen from me before I was born, and there is nothing I can do about it.

The descendants of Indigenous peoples should be extended the respect we have long deserved but have never been given. We should not be forced to acknowledge or celebrate, year after year, the life of a man who sought our demise. And I should not be considered radical or sensitive for refusing to honor a man who would likely have murdered—and certainly have raped—me.

And so I oppose those who defend Columbus or who contend that the genocide of the Taínos occurred “too long ago to matter,” and I challenge proponents of Columbus Day and of the Thanksgiving myth to remember this:

Every time you indulge in your cultural traditions and revel in how close they make you feel to your ancestors, recall that I will never be able to feel that close. And every time you hear your ancestral language or see your culture depicted on a screen, remember that I have never had those experiences.

And I will never get to make a film like Atanarjuat, despite my yearning to do so. I will never speak my ancestors’ language. I will never get to sing the songs they sang.

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About The Author

Gabrielle Ulubay

Gabrielle Ulubay is an American writer and filmmaker currently based in Montreal. Her work has previously been published in The New York Times, Bustle, Film Ireland, and Hey Alma Magazine.

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