Columbus Day has been celebrated in the United States since 1971, when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed legislation proclaiming it a federal holiday. For years, the holiday has been controversial.
It is a source of pride for many Italian-Americans who commemorate the global reach of Italy’s most celebrated explorer. At the same time, for many others, particularly Native Americans, Columbus’s arrival in the New World in 1492 represents the beginning of centuries of enslavement and war.
On Oct. 8, President Biden became the first U.S. president to also proclaim Columbus Day, on Oct. 11 this year, Indigenous Peoples’ Day, which began in 1992 as a celebration of native cultures — and a counter-narrative to Columbus’s legendary exploits.
For years, American schoolchildren have been taught the Christopher Columbus poem, which begins:
In fourteen hundred ninety-two
Columbus sailed the ocean blue.
He had three ships and left from Spain;
He sailed through sunshine, wind and rain.
He sailed by night; he sailed by day;
He used the stars to find his way.
A compass also helped him know
How to find the way to go.
Columbus, as is widely taught, had originally sailed west from Spain, thinking he could arrive in India to trade in spices. He could have, except North America was in the way. He first landed on an unknown island in the Caribbean. The Columbus poem states:
"Indians, Indians!” Columbus cried;
His heart was filled with joyful pride.
If only that were true. On his very first day in the New World, Columbus and his crew of about 90 enslaved six natives of the island, according to history.com. They went on to enslave many others, and to force untold numbers of natives to convert to Christianity through extreme cruelty. The Columbus poem mentions none of this, leaving schoolchildren with only a partial image of the explorer.
Long Island was no different than the rest of what became the United States. Native Americans had inhabited the Island for millennia, whaling and fishing for subsistence and sharing a common Algonquian language. Once there were 13 Algonquin tribes spread across the 118-mile-long island, according to the Matinecock Tribal Nation of Long Island. From west to east, they were the:
• Manhasetts (which were actually on the very east end of the North Fork, not on Nassau County’s North Shore)
Dutch and British colonialists settled on Long Island in the 17th and 18th centuries, chasing most of the Native American tribes from the lands they believed they would peacefully share with the Europeans. Many of the natives were brutalized and placed in indentured servitude, spending the rest of their lives enslaved.
By 1670, most area Native Americans were gone, according to Newsday’s history project, Long Island Our Story.
Today Native Americans remain here in small numbers, primarily concentrated on the Shinnecock Indian Nation reservation, in the Town of Southampton, and the Posspatuck reservation, in the Town of Brookhaven. The Posspatuck reservation has yet to receive federal recognition. The Shinnecock Nation didn’t receive that recognition until 2010, after a 32-year battle to obtain it. Federal recognition allows the nation to operate independently from state and local governments and to build a casino on its reservation. In February this year, it proposed doing just that.
About 600 Native Americans live on the 1,200-acre Shinnecock reservation, while another roughly 600 tribal members live off it, and 200 call the 55-acre Posspatuck reservation home. When the Dutch arrived here, there were several thousand Native Americans in the Island’s 13 tribes.
Before Europeans’ arrival on Long Island, Native Americans had inhabited it for 11,000 years — more than 550 generations — primarily living in peace. It was a largely unspoiled wilderness; the native peoples had long lived lightly on the land.
This is the history that has so rarely been taught in Long Island schools. The decimation of Indigenous peoples has so often been thought of in terms of westward expansion of the United States — the battles for lands across the Midwest and West. How easily we forget that Native Americans were exploited here as early as two centuries before territorial expansion under manifest destiny in the 19th century.
This, however, is the history that should be taught, so we might, as Long Islanders, understand why we must fully support the Native Americans who remain here today.
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