Monday, October 11, 2010

Columbus Day, 2010

Today is a government holiday in Colorado. In spite of protests and negotiations over the past several decades, a small group in Denver’s Italian community has maintained a parade to honor Columbus and state employees like my husband have the day off, in honor of Christopher Columbus.

When I have taken groups to Israel/Palestine, we meet Palestinians who live, say, in Bethlehem, but they stand on a rooftop and point off in the distance to a hilltop where their family’s village once stood (one of these, ironically named the American Park-you can see one of these hills to the top left in the photo, taken from the Deheisheh Refugee Camp in Bethlehem--the site of Shadee's family's home, where he has never been able to visit). Americans are often baffled by how, in so many instances, Israel has simply taken lands that belonged to Palestinians. They often ask, How can this happen? How does Israel get away with this?

I have found myself explaining it by noting that it’s like when American colonists and pioneers “settled” America—building their log cabins or sod homes, cutting down the forests or plowing the prairie and rationalizing it by saying that no one lived on the land, that the land was empty, or it was (US) government land.

Over the past 20 years I have marched several times in the “Transform Columbus Day” protest of Denver’s Columbus Day parade. This year, because of my work to learn about and educate Americans about Palestinian rights, three parallels seem particularly striking to me.

A Land Without a People for a People Without a Land

Seventeenth century European immigrants to America thought that God was providing them with the land—that it had been “abandoned” by the inhabitants, who had conveniently died of smallpox epidemic in 1616, a disease brought by earlier European explorers. William Bradford wrote in his diary “For it pleased God to visit these Indians with a great sickness and such a mortality that of a thousand, nine and a half hundred of them died…” Because their methods of cultivation were different, one early colonist describes the Indians as lazy, “fettered by the chains of idleness,” unworthy to properly care for the land by efficient cultivation—leaving the land “marred for want of manuring, gathering, ordering, etc.” The Europeans justified their occupation of the land with the argument that they would put the land to its proper use. (from Ronald Takaki, A Different Mirror)

Following God’s Will

Columbus, like many of the Europeans who came to the “New World,” was an apocalyptic Christian—he believed that the fulfillment of scripture depended on the Christianization of the world. Columbus writes, “God made me a messenger of the new heaven and new earth…” Columbus also hoped to use the wealth he gained to finance a new crusade to take Jerusalem back from the Muslims. (see Christianity: a Global History by David Chidester)

Security Needs—the New Residents of the Land Demand Protection

In a description of the Sand Creek Massacre in Colorado, near La Junta, we read,

“The Treaty of Fort Laramie (1851) had recognized Cheyenne and Arapaho claims to much of the high plains between the Front Range of Colorado and western Kansas, and the North Platte and Arkansas rivers, but increasing Anglo-American emigrant traffic through native lands as well as the Pikes Peak gold rush in 1859 made it necessary for the government to ‘renegotiate’ the treaty….[The new treaty,] the Treaty of Fort Wise (1861) established a Cheyenne-Arapaho reservation in southeast Colorado (officially known as the ‘Reservation of the Arapahoes and Cheyennes of the Upper Arkansas’).…The treaty faced problems from the beginning, since only the ‘peace factions’ of the Southern Cheyennes and Arapahos signed. No Northern Cheyennes and Arapahos participated in the ratification, and these bands continued to claim hunting lands in the South Platte valley. In addition, militants such as the Cheyenne Dog Soldiers, established on the Smoky Hill and Republican rivers, also resisted the new demands.” Read more in a history of the Sand Creek massacre by Colorado State University. Photo is of the Sand Creek National Historic Site near La Junta, Colorado.

In Israel, too, settlers expect their government to protect them. In the West Bank, settlers first build temporary mobile units, and then more permanent homes. As new people move to the settlement and all the children grow up, they need more homes and more land. The settlers begin to feel threatened, either because of actual attacks or because they want to expand their lands and fear resistance from the nearby villages that claim these lands. Sometimes the lands for settlements are purchased from the Palestinian owners. Sometimes the lands are simply declared “parkland” by the Israeli government, which can then dispose of the lands as they wish.
On this Columbus Day, from where I am writing, I look out over West Denver, where the names of the streets remind me of those who used to gather here to trade and hunt buffalo—Arapaho, Bannock, Shoshone, Lipan, Navajo…and others who inhabited the southwest—Acoma, Zuni, the Cherokee and Elati who were forced west by settlement. Like many current residents of Denver, the Arapaho came here (of their own accord) from Minnesota—the Red River Valley area. Read more….

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