American Indians revive Columbus Day protest

The signs and shouts said it loud: The Columbus Day holiday always isn’t shining reflections of sailing oceans blue. Not for everyone.

Rather, for the 50 or more American Indians gathered around the South Park gazebo Monday, the holiday stirred memories of generations of natives lost in the New World.

“He’s a man who came here with dreams of exploiting our land and our people,” said Derrick White, a member of the Navajo-Pottawatomie tribe and Haskell Indian Nations University student.

The group, made up of Haskell students from several tribes and local activists, rode and marched down Massachusetts Street, waving native flags and carrying signs.

In the park, they stood at the top of the gazebo steps and insisted that all native suffering, from 1492 until today, stemmed from the moment Columbus set foot in the New World.

“This is where they’ve taken us,” White said.

The day of protest was the first in Lawrence since 1992 – the 500-year anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of America.

Since then, White said, Haskell students’ Columbus Day protests have fizzled out.

Willow Jack, a Haskell Indian Nations University student, holds a sign to protest Columbus Day in South Park. About 50 people, mostly Haskell students, gathered to protest the holiday honoring Italian explorer Christopher Columbus on Monday afternoon.

“Nobody was really getting anything going,” he said.

Then, a conversation in an American Indian Studies class at Haskell inspired White to send a campuswide e-mail. Just because Haskell gets the day off – it’s a federal institution – White said he didn’t want to sit by idly.

“I thought: I’m not taking the day off,” he said.

The turnout, he said, shocked him. He expected no more than the four or five classmates he first discussed the idea with.

But with a boisterous, almost celebratory crowd, White and others stood and spoke about native perceptions of the Columbus holiday.

Jimmy Beason, an Osage tribe member and Haskell student, read from a poem. In the U.S. today, he said, anyone with a contrary viewpoint of the country and its history is considered an enemy.

“So be it,” Beason said. “Because this is occupied territory.”

Not everyone perceived the holiday as wholly negative.

Mike Ortmann, a social studies teacher at Lawrence High School, said that he emphasizes American Indians’ plight to students.

But he also shows them that Columbus’ landing – which officially happened Oct. 12, 1492 – began the exchange of ideas and goods between the old and new worlds.

“It was the whole interchange between the New World and Europe that occurred,” he said.

But at South Park on Monday, the students and others voiced their anger toward the memory of the Italian explorer – and the hope that this wouldn’t be the last year of the Columbus Day protest.

“Maybe this can continue in the years to come,” Beason said. “This whole park could be filled up.”