That time we sank the Santa Maria

Cultural Democracy copyIn the winter of 1987-88 I was back in Puerto Rico visiting and read that a flotilla of canoes was leaving South America, tracing the Taino migration up the Antilles to Puerto Rico (which had occurred around the year 1000). The voyage was undertaken in advance of the 500th anniversary of Columbus and his ships arriving the same area in 1492 and was grounded in a Native perspective on the conquest. Returning to the the States I proposed to the national organization I was active in, the Alliance for Cultural Democracy (ACD), that we devote the next four years to building opposition to the official Columbus Commemorations.

The US government had big plans. It had established the Christopher Columbus Quincentenary Jubilee Commission (with associated state commissions). It was chaired by John N. Goudie, a Cuban emigre union buster and republican fundraiser from Miami and lined up major corporate sponsors. They envisioned a year of gala celebrations, reveling in the “Discovery of America” and the foundations of US Patriotism. We began work on what would develop into a loose national affiliation of autonomous groups and local coalitions determined to challenge the story and replace it with a true history og the conquest. Out of the arts collective office where I worked in Minneapolis we published “huracan,” a tabloid newsletter listing the hundreds of anti-Columbus efforts around the country and the hemisphere (thanks to Michael Schwartz, Jeff Nygaard and Simone Senogles who all helped at various times to keep it coming).

Huracan was shipped by the bundle to Indigenous, African American, arts, solidarity faith-based, student and other types of organizations. They all sent or phoned in their news and plans (no Internet). A small core of Italian American activists worked doggedly to highlight Italian historical figures to honor in place of the conqueror. The Nation Council of Churches (and many individual congregations of different faiths), Social Studies associations, foundations and publishers all climbed on board. Conferences were held, curricula developed, songs, posters and theater productions created, books published, protests organized. New books were published – not as a result of our campaign but fitting nicely into it. And lots of speaking gigs and interviews for activists and academics and coverage in mainstream as well as professional and movement media. And plenty of backlash. A highlight for me was being personally attacked by Rush Limbaugh on his radio show based on an interview I had done with the St Paul newspaper. At one time I reached out to Leonard Peltier to see if he’d agree to be the unifying “national chair” for the entire movement – I was gone the day he called back and the coalition as a whole didn’t have the administrative cohesion to pull it off.

Printmaking groups (from all communities) produced produced T-shirts and other fundraising items to support local organizing. (My favorites came from an Indigenous collective in S. Dakota who priced their T-shirts at $14.92 and their sweatshirts at $19.92.) Resolutions were passed. People in different movements and communities worked to explain to their grassroots how the conquest and slavery related to their issues and history. Japanese activists highlighted the ideological link between 1492 and 1942, the year of the Japanese American Internment by the US government. ACD members – artists, organizers and educators – were active in the local coalitions and the organization held annual conferences around the issue in Atlanta, Albuquerque and Minneapolis.

The Jubilee Commission collapsed. Coca Cola, Texaco and other sponsors pulled out, unwilling to be connected with what had become “controversial.” It had raised less than $900,000 – $2,4000,000 short of its projections. Goudie resigned under investigation for corruption and charged with contempt for withholding and falsifying records. A fitting end to a celebration of colonialism, itself the historically largest scale form of robbery.

Perhaps most importantly the teaching of Columbus became complicated teacher involvement in the campaign was strong). New educational materials took hold in some place. Even where the official line held firm the seeds of rebellion had been planted. Current efforts to reinstate the racist foundational myths in schools that had moved beyond them are met with immediate resistance.

It was, for, me, a unique movement experience. A national campaign involving thousands of mostly local initiatives with only the slimmest lines of coordination brought down the official commemorations and irreversibly damaged the official history. It was a purely cultural campaign. There were no demands for food, housing, the end to wars or other direct human needs. Yet large numbers of people came to understand clearly how the telling of this story impacted all of those things.

Another forgotten bit of our movement history – but worth remembering.

Happy Indigenous People’s Day!

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