Embrace Indigenous Values and Remove Iconic Fascist Memorials

6 minute read

With the majority of the country now joining forces with the Black Lives Matter Movement, we have a chance to pause and revisit a very important time in history that took place here, during the founding of the United States, the Haudenosaunee Confederacy served to inspire America’s Founding Fathers to form a more perfect union of governance that would provide equity for all. Few know the history of these Indigenous Roots to American Democracy, and that this Great Binding Message of Peace, came to Onondaga Lake many thousands of years ago by the Peacemaker. We live in a very unique place where this spark ignited a light that would shine brightly around the world. Today the light is diminishing exponentially, taking with it the hope of a viable future, which espouses the great urgency to now take a stand.

We should reclaim Onondaga as the center of American Democracy.  A stance of neutrality is no longer acceptable as we now stand witness to murders that happen before our eyes on the evening news. Today, being “non-racist” means to be passively complicit which allows for violence and injustice to continue. As anti-racists, we must now move to end racism.

Mayor Walsh’s statement regarding to appoint an advisory panel to again study the Columbus statue, unfortunately further delays the inevitable. The Talking Circles were conducted by InterFaith Works, in the hopes of finding the “Common Ground” between those who honor Columbus—the perpetrator who introduced genocide to the Americas, and those who still suffer the oppression from what Columbus initiated. Since the Age of Discovery and the trans-Atlantic slave trade, Indigenous Peoples have been forced under the domination of the Church as a means to silence their voices, destroy their cultures, and convert them to Christianity. These religious institutions continue to perpetuate oppression and are no longer acceptable in determining when and how Indigenous Peoples should speak. As was stated by Resilient Indigenous Action Collective at the 27 June protest, healing can only begin when the Columbus Statue is removed. Now is the time to take bold and decisive action. The people have spoken on this issue.

At the Skä·noñh—the  Great Law of Peace Center it was crucial that we present for the first time a clear Haudenosaunee voice, that was unhindered by the Jesuit narrative of conquest that for nearly 90 years had been communicated at the “French Fort.” We’ve all been inundated with colonial texts that served to control history by selectively omitting what actually happened, and by silencing the voices of those who survived. Indigenous Peoples need to reclaim their right to speak, and we need to listen. The Founding Fathers saw great potential in how borrowing from the Haudenosaunee’s Great Binding Peace could help form a more perfect union. We need to revisit these ancient teachings to once again help steer us toward a more equitable future for humankind and our relatives of the natural world.

The debate on whether to remove Columbus from downtown Syracuse reflects the struggle of finding the soul of Syracuse. The choice for us is clear, we either fully embrace equitable democratic principles for everyone or we will reinforce the ongoing undercurrent of fascism that has been slowly seeping into our government since the late 18th century.  We are at that critical edge right now.

Italians have a strong presence in Syracuse, and their many contributions greatly enriched our American lives. Let’s celebrate that. But we mustn’t forget the discriminatory injustices held against Italian Americans just a few generations ago.  During the Great Migrations of the 19th and 20th centuries they were subjected to the same racial profiling and violence that many People of Color (POC) experience today.  In 1891 11 Italians were lynched in New Orleans, while in other parts of the country, they were aligning themselves to Columbus to legitimize their citizenship. Today, however, Italian Americans no longer experience these same threats of racism and oppression. We must now re-examine why Columbus, who has since been revealed as the iconic face of world domination, should remain celebrated a hero, especially when so many around the world still feel the oppression of what he represents:

  1. Columbus never visited what is now the United States. All 4 of his voyages were confined to what is now known as the Caribbean Islands and Central America.
  2. Columbus was arrested after his 3rd voyage for “tyranny and brutality” and was sent back to Spain in irons to serve his sentence. In 2006, a 48-page report was discovered of his crimes of brutality against Indigenous Peoples and other colonists. Following one slaughter of an Indigenous community, he paraded their dismembered bodies throughout the city streets.  Columbus was much more than a “flawed human being,” as was suggested by Governor Cuomo, but rather a mass-murderer—one not even tolerated by the standards of his time. Remember, the Spanish Crown was responsible for the bloody Spanish Inquisition!
  3. In 1934, the Columbus statue was gifted to the Italian community by Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. He not only created the Fascist Movement, but also supported Adolph Hitler’s quickly rising Nazi party. Mussolini paid for shipping the statue, had the body enlarged and requested that the inscription “Columbo Cristobal Discoverer of America” be prominently displayed.
  4. Columbus was sailing under the auspices of what is now known as the Doctrines of Christian Discovery (DoCD), which was an extension of the 12th century Christian Crusades. In a series of 15th century Papal declarations, Christian explorers were mandated to seize and enslave non-Christians, take their lands and property for the express purpose of expanding the Christian Empire (Christendom). Portuguese and Spanish sailors set out to invade West Africa and the Americas, looking for gold, slaves and colonial outposts. These trips funded the Church’s exploits in their quest for world domination. The DoCD persists today as a fundamental aspect of law that continues to oppress Indigenous Peoples throughout the world.

For some, Columbus might stand as a symbol of Italian-American liberation, but for others he stands as the bearer of Christian domination, loss of cultural identity, destruction and commodification of the land, and representative of brutal fascism, white supremacy and tyranny. He has no connection to the American Democratic ideals that are now under threat.  In opposition to Claudia Tenney’s comments, this is precisely WHY Columbus needs to come down. His life, legacy and what he represents, inhibits our ability to function as an inclusive democratic society. The fact that Columbus is coming down all over the United States is a message of hope for all those whose lives were lost so others could live their American dream.

The opinions of Betty Lyons and Milton Norman Franson suggest a more inclusive vision that returns to those Indigenous roots to American Democracy which would make us unique in the world, and stand as a monument to the Great Peacemaker in our city center.  When we built the Skä·noñh—Great Law of Peace Center it was to finally celebrate the Haudenosaunee and the contributions they have made.  Our cherished form of participatory Democracy, is the message that was delivered at the shore of Onondaga Lake over 1,000 years ago by the Peacemaker. We need to return to the Indigenous Values that inspired American Democracy, the early Suffragists, new sustainable ways of agriculture, lacrosse, & the values needed to truly know peace. Which legacy do you wish to leave your children?   (1238 words)  

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Philip P. Arnold Associate Professor and Chair, Department of Religion, Syracuse University Skä·noñh—Great Law of Peace Center ** ** Founding Director Indigenous Values Initiative  
Sandy Bigtree Mohawk Nation of Akwesasne Skä·noñh—Great Law of Peace Center ** ** Collaborative Indigenous Values Initiative