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Why Columbus statues are so offensive to Indigenous people | COMMENTARY

Margo Walsh of Baltimore shades her eyes from the sun as she examines the marble base of the statue of Christopher Columbus. The statue, at Columbus Piazza near Little Italy, was yanked from its base by protesters Saturday night, and dumped in the harbor.
Margo Walsh of Baltimore shades her eyes from the sun as she examines the marble base of the statue of Christopher Columbus. The statue, at Columbus Piazza near Little Italy, was yanked from its base by protesters Saturday night, and dumped in the harbor. (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

We were compelled to react after reading that City Councilman Ryan Dorsey and Baltimore Bloc received threats due to Mr. Dorsey’s proposed bill to change the name of one of Baltimore’s Columbus statues and Baltimore Bloc’s demand that Mayor Jack Young remove the statues.

Indigenous people in Maryland have been asking that Columbus Day be changed to Indigenous Peoples Day and the Columbus statues come down for years now. We’ve met with council members, invited politicians to our Indian centers, contacted state legislators, spoken in front of the City Council and the mayor, and rallied in front of the Columbus statue at the Inner Harbor. Our requests have been ignored, much like our very existence as native and Indigenous peoples is often ignored.

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Columbus initiated the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade when he captured hundreds of Tainos and shipped them to Spain for gold. He enslaved and used others for sex trafficking, including Indigenous children as young as age 9. He required Taino people to bring him gold every three months or he would chop their arms off, and many Tainos died this way, researchers have found. His priest documented multiple brutal massacres of Indians, including disemboweling them. He encouraged the rape of our women. Seeing this man honored with statues and holidays is deeply offensive to Indigenous peoples, and we can’t understand what anyone finds to celebrate about him. Even Spain, whom he was employed by, said he was mismanaging things and brought him back to Europe.

We read in The Baltimore Sun that a group of Italian Americans are moving to protect the statues in Baltimore. A group of protesters in response removed one of the statues and dumped it into the Inner Harbor over the weekend. We implore those who protect these statues: Can you find no other Italian who is worth honoring? Not a single one? Or is the truth that you really do celebrate his atrocities against Indigenous peoples and that is why you are so determined to keep these hateful statues up?

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State Dels. Kathy Szeliga and Nino Mangione at a news conference in Little Italy announced that they plan to ask Gov. Hogan and Mayor Young to preserve and protect these monuments. This suggests to us that they do not know Indigenous history and do not value the native and Indigenous constituents in their districts in Baltimore County, Baltimore City and throughout Maryland. They have not attempted to speak with us about these matters even once. These lawmakers would rather align themselves with the most privileged and use their government positions to uphold institutional white supremacy by continuing to marginalize and erase Native Americans and Indigenous peoples, and by prioritizing protecting stone objects over repairing the harm caused by genocide initiated by Christopher Columbus and his men.

We appreciate the recognition that having a Columbus statue is wrong, but as Native Americans are killed by police at the highest rate of any racial or ethnic group, we do not want our relatives who die as a result of police brutality to be honored with a Columbus statue. We want all Columbus statues currently in Baltimore removed immediately.

As native and Indigenous peoples we want to be involved in conversations about what to do regarding Columbus holidays and statues. We believe that each and every racist statue and monument in Maryland and Baltimore City should come down. Three pillars of racism are native erasure, anti-Blackness, and white supremacy, and all three must be addressed so that society can heal from the damaging effects of oppression. We appreciate the solidarity shown by Baltimore Bloc’s demand that the statues be removed.

Mayor Young, City Council President Brandon Scott, and every Baltimore City Council member, will you take the first step in acknowledging this wound and remove all three statues? Gov. Hogan, will you have the courage to stand firmly alongside native and Indigenous Marylanders, whose land you are living on, and speak out against continuing to harbor racist monuments in Maryland?

We cannot begin to heal the centuries long effects of racism while we honor colonizers and white supremacists with statues, plaques and monuments. It’s time to be honest about who they were. It’s time for an honest re-retelling of history across Turtle Island.

We are still here. We are “Natives for Black Lives.”

Yathiley Phoenix Bell (indigenous.strong@gmail.com) is writing on behalf of Indigenous Strong, a Maryland- based Indigenous rights advocacy group.

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