Columbus statue: Symbols of oppression go far beyond the Confederate flag (Commentary)
By Betty Lyons
As Americans embrace the movement to remove the Confederate flag from a place of honor in the public square, those who ignore Christopher Columbus’ role in giving the green light to centuries of racism and dehumanizing of Indigenous peoples must be called to task.
That includes Governor Cuomo, whose eloquence in response to the anti-racism movement sparked by the murder of George Floyd apparently does not extend to the genocide and enslavement those first transatlantic voyages initiated and which continue to underpin oppression of Indigenous peoples to this day.
Whether blinded by an understandable pride in his Italian American heritage, or a refusal to educate himself on the sordid abuse Columbus loosed on Indigenous peoples in the so-called New World, Cuomo would do well to remember the slogan his father used in his own last campaign for governor – the facts matter.
That oppression – whether of African Americans, Indigenous peoples or others not part of the European settler community – all stems from the mindset laid out in the Doctrine of Discovery, the 15th century series of Papal bulls that said European explorers who “discovered” lands not occupied by Christians could consider those lands empty and seize them in the names of their sovereigns.
Pope Nicholas V’s Dum Diversas authorized explorers to “invade, search out, capture, and subjugate the Saracens and pagans and any other unbelievers and enemies of Christ … and to reduce their persons into perpetual servitude.”
Lest you think that is ancient history, the Doctrine provided religious justification for the enslavement of Africans and continues to underpin American law on Indigenous rights to freedom, land and resources.
Columbus, who never landed in North America and sailed under the Spanish flag centuries before Italy even existed as a nation, recounted in his diaries how his men regularly went on gang raids for gold, and for the raping and taking of women and children as slaves for sex and labor.
The growing understanding of links between oppressions of African Americans and Indigenous peoples is why recent protests quickly expanded to include Columbus statues. That is why we are so encouraged at the broad cross-section of people, including activists in the Black Lives Matter movement, who have come together to demand the removal of Syracuse’s Columbus statue.
Protestors have pulled down Columbus statues in Virginia and Minnesota, and beheaded one in Boston. Even Columbus, Ohio, approved removing a Columbus statue from in front of City Hall.
In New York City, police have been dispatched to protect two Columbus statues, one atop a 70-foot-tall column in Columbus Circle and the other on Literary Walk in Central Park, which activists have targeted for removal.
And the reckoning with racist history continues to expand.
After years of agitation led by Indigenous leaders, New York City’s American Museum of Natural History has announced the planned removal of the equestrian statue of Theodore Roosevelt, which portrays Roosevelt as a “Great White Father” with Indigenous and African American stereotypes depicted subserviently below him.
Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan has called for removing a statue of William Schuyler, the largest local slaveholder at the time of the American Revolution, from in front of City Hall.
At the State Capitol, there are calls to remove the statue of Gen. Philip Sheridan, who led brutal and racist campaigns against Indigenous nations in the American West, proclaiming to Comanche chief Tosahwi that “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.”
No one should presume that removing offensive symbols will solve problems of racism, inequality, oppressive police tactics and governmental neglect. But we also know that history is not static. It changes over time as we are exposed to the hollowness of tarnished depictions that whitewash racist and oppressive aspects of those we supposedly honor.
Perhaps we should not be surprised that the governor does not hear the pleas of New York’s Indigenous residents. Unlike his father, Andrew Cuomo has not met with Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy leaders for his entire administration, whether the issue was land rights, educational opportunities or the abortive clean-up of Onondaga Lake.
Until the larger society confronts the fact that symbols of oppression go far beyond the Confederate flag, peace will not come to the land. Until then, Cuomo, as does President Trump, continues to have his knee on our necks.
Betty Lyons, a citizen of the Onondaga Nation, is president and executive director of the American Indian Law Alliance.