After clashes between white nationalists and counter protestors over the Robert E. Lee statue erupted in Charlottesville, Va., other cities across the country began to evaluate their divisive public statues. In New York City, Mayor De Blasio vowed to create a commission that would review all “symbols of hate” and make recommendations for the complete removal or modification of a select few.
Missing from the current debate around city art, monuments and markers, however, is testimony from Native groups of people (those with origins in any of the original peoples of North and South America, including Central America and the Caribbean), who have been affected in real ways by the oppressive acts of the men shaped into bronze and stone.
There are important distinctions between those who are descended from the original peoples of different parts of the world—Columbus, for instance, committed atrocities against the Native people of Hispaniola, not the mainland North American tribes who suffered badly in later encounters with White explorers and settlers. Yet the struggle to attain full sovereignty, equality and basic human rights is shared by all Native peoples.
The founder of American Indian Artists Inc. (AMERINDA), the only multi-disciplinary arts organization of its kind in the United States that supports tribally-enrolled artists and members of sovereign Nations since 1987, Diane Fraher (Osage/Cherokee), weighs in on the statue controversy from a different angle. For Fraher, the debate about removal of the Christopher Columbus statues is tangential to the more important discussion that city officials should be having – one about achieving tangible justice for Native groups and correcting the discriminatory process of how resources are unevenly distributed among different communities in the city.
AMERINDA has had its own share of battles against the city over securing space to showcase their artists’ work. Despite receiving grant money by the Department of Cultural Affairs through the City’s Cultural Development Fund and the City Council, they’ve had to move from one church room to another for years, losing out on opportunities for permanent space to non-Native arts organizations. Fraher believes that this is due to a skewed application process with pre-determined outcomes favoring non-Native arts groups.(You can read recent testimony the group provided to the City Council here.)
“It’s not the goal. We want real justice and real change. If the city cannot meet with us and support our current urgent request for a modest amount of space,” says Fraher, “do not pimp the Native American community over a statue of Columbus in order to play a thinly disguised race card in an election year.”
The intricacies of the Columbus debate inform the social issues that Native communities across the country have endured for centuries and still today. Stereotypes by the U.S. media portraying Native people as invisible, politically inactive and unable to handle their own affairs are ubiquitous but inaccurate. Native or indigenous people are even believed to have “died out,” with those who “remain” solely confined to reservations. The 2010 U.S. Census tells us a different story: There were 115,672 American Indian, Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Native people living in New York State, roughly 0.5 percent of New York’s population at the time.
Native Nations have also always had their own forms of government, meaning they are inherently sovereign entities. Numerous discriminatory laws and public policies implemented by the U.S. government since its inception made it more difficult for these Nations to assert their own self-determination, two of which included Indian removal and relocation acts in the 1800s and civilization regulations that outlawed Indian religions, ceremonies, and all cultural customs until 1936.
David Bunn Martine (Shinnecock/Montauk/Chiricahua Apache), the historic preservation officer for the Shinnecock tribe in Long Island and board chair of AMERINDA, sees contemporary effects of these historical events, citing his years of experience negotiating with federal entities about archaeological site preservation and recognition of sacred land.
“We’re carrying this title here, Native American, so people say ‘Well, that doesn’t really compute.’ You have to go through and explain we’ve only been around for a minimum of 10,000 years in North America,” states Martine. “We’re the only group that’s always been here, that doesn’t come from another part of the hemisphere.”
With eight federally-recognized American Indian tribes in New York State today, Martine explains that the distinction between federally-recognized tribes and unrecognized tribes is also important to understand because in the former, the U.S. government recognizes the right of an Indian tribe to exist as a sovereign entity. Individuals may also seek tribal enrollment to form a connection with their tribe, or to obtain access to benefits of such enrollment, such as health services or educational and training opportunities.
Cliff Matias (Taino, Kichwa), director of Redhawk Native American Arts Council, also points to the lack of awareness that the general population seems to have about who indigenous people are, where they live, and their distinct histories. Based in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Sunset Park and founded in 1994, Redhawk hosts different cultural and educational events that cover indigenous struggles from South America, as well as the Caribbean and Polynesian Islands. They were one of the first cultural organizations in the country to bring Native Hawaiians into the Native American discussion.
Emphasizing the significance that Redhawk places on educational programming to teach young people what they haven’t learned in their schools about indigenous histories, Matias believes that removing the statue would be the best course of action. “Christopher Columbus is a black eye on America…the statue is part of a bigger issue,” says Matias. “If we want to teach our kids the truth, we need to teach them that Christopher Columbus was a criminal.”
Redhawk receives funding and support from the Parks Department and the Department of Cultural Affairs, but it is one of only two Native organizations in New York City with official spaces to house their programming – the other is the multi-faceted social support agency and cultural center founded in 1969, the American Indian Community House (AICH).
In a recent letter to members of the Mayoral Advisory Commission, AICH urged the commission to support the removal of all Columbus statues in NYC. They also wrote to Mayor de Blasio, the City Council and the Trustees of the American Museum of Natural History in another public letter, asking why city cultural institutions and monuments have been allowed to stand and perpetrate the historical exploitation and enslavement of indigenous peoples.
“Many American cities have bowed to the obvious and renamed Columbus Day as Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Why is New York not among them?” asks AICH in their letter to De Blasio. “New York City sits on the territory of the Lenape, and over one hundred thousand Indigenous people live on its territory today, more than any other city in the United States! Let’s honor the rich legacy and achievements of Native Americans and discard the unsavory celebration of imperial conquest.”
Among members of the Mayoral Advisory Commission, there is only one person who is of Native or indigenous descent – Columbia University professor and Mohawk Indian anthropologist, Audra Simpson, who grew up on the Kahnawake reservation in Quebec.
Despite little Native representation on the local, city government level, Native communities in the city are politically active, strongly advocating for their rights to more funding to continue providing essential services to their respective communities. AMERINDA, AICH, and other like-minded organizations in the city are testaments to that fact. “The City Council doesn’t really see us as a voting bloc,” affirms Matias.
Charlie Uruchima, founder of Kichwa Hatari, the first indigenous Kichwa-language weekly radio show in the United States, based in the Bronx, believes the city should start paying more attention to its displaced indigenous communities, especially those it now considers immigrants.
Citing linguistic and cultural isolation as some of the difficulties faced by the Quechua community, who are Ecuadorian indigenous people, Uruchima affirms that Latin American indigenous immigrants in the city are often misidentified. Thus, they do not get the financial support they need to strengthen their communities and access social and educational services that they’re entitled to.
“Christopher Columbus will always symbolize the beginning of genocide and mass displacement in our communities, still lived through today,” Uruchima says. “We call on the New York City Council to consider the adoption of Indigenous People’s Day, and the further dismantling of the Christopher Columbus’s statue, as a step toward recognizing the history and contributions of ALL New Yorkers.”
The director of external affairs at the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs, Ryan Max, couldn’t comment on the larger social, cultural and political implications of the Columbus statue controversy since the Mayoral Advisory Commission on City Art, Monuments and Markers hasn’t officially convened yet. He forwarded their press release on the matter – as did the Director of Community and Intergovernmental Affairs at the Landmarks Preservation Commission, Ali Rasoulinejad.
Native New York
Census Data on Tribal Identification, 2010
|Total tribes tallied||57149|
|American Indian tribes||18488|
|Canadian and French American Indian||111|
|Central American Indian||3948|
|Mexican American Indian||3646|
|Puget Sound Salish||5|
|South American Indian||4682|
|Spanish American Indian||1871|
|All other American Indian tribes||653|
|American Indian tribes, not specified||4244|
|Alaska Native tribes, specified||77|
|Alaska Native tribes, not specified||34|
|American Indian or Alaska Native tribes, not specified||34306|
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