I and my peers grew up with Columbus Day, not a big holiday, unless you lived in an Italian neighborhood, but a middle of the run holiday that meant bank closures and a day off from school. There was little thinking about it—beyond hackneyed stereotypes of Columbus landing in the
“new world,” and thus “discovering” America.
It was always more complicated. Let’s work backwards: It was October 12, 1792, when the “Columbian Order of New York,” better known as Tammany Hall, held an event to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the historic landing. And what was Tammany Hall? If we’d paid attention in high school history classes, we learned that it was a Democratic and corrupt power brokerage group in New York City.
Phil Deloria, the wonderful Native historian who now teaches at Harvard, wrote a thesis which became a book called Playing Indian. According to Deloria’s extensive research, Tammany Hall was one of many men’s clubs that played at being Indian, primarily as a way to distinguish themselves from being English. The name “Tammany” comes from Tamanend, a Native American leader of the Lenape. They adopted Native American names, words and customs, called their leader the “Grand Sachem,” and their meeting hall a wigwam.
It had all started earlier, before independence. Remember the famous Boston Tea Party—and the Indian dress of the participant? (I have a picture of these white men in Indian dress and paint lodged in my fourth-grade mind.) Deloria tells us that these men were not disguised. Everyone knew who they were. They were using “Indianness” to distance themselves from the evil old world, to say they were “American.”
But playing Indian had its ups and downs, and by 1792, had found a down, so that the New York Tammany gang decided to transform themselves from Indians to Columbians. The Indian maiden, who appears in Deloria’s book in a cartoon of the time, with one British soldier lifting up her skirt while another British soldier gets a spit of Boston tea in his face, becomes Columbiana.
Indianness, and playing Indian, has continued its ups and downs. And so has the lot of tribes and individual Indians. There have been periods where white Americans admired Indians, and more periods than that where white Americans tried to educate, beat, and legislate culture, language, and religion out of Indians. Things reached a kind of nadir about 1900, when the Native population of the United States bottomed at 237,000.
And shortly after that the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, and Campfire Girls were busy playing Indian again. We were naming cars Pontiac and the Indian maiden’s picture on the carton helped sell Land O’ Lakes butter. Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indian School beat Army on the football playing field, and Phil Deloria’s grandfather went to Bard College to play football.
World War II saw the Code Talkers, yet in a last, frustrating attempt at assimilation—and a last final plunge at taking Indian lands—the Eisenhower Administration promulgated the Termination Act and the Relocation Act.
Indians buttoned up and survived that one too—read Louise Erdrich’s Night Watchman for a look at that hard time in Indian Country, and read Tommy Orange’s There There for how it played out with urban Indians a generation later.
And here we are, in 2023. Pope Francis beat the new holiday by refuting the infamous Doctrine of Discovery some months ago. Churches and non-profits across the country have been scurrying to acknowledge stolen lands and apologize for their own ties to that old anchor of White European justification for conquest and colonization. President Biden has released $5 million to help tribes revitalize buffalo herds, and promises to do everything possible to restore ancient salmon runs.
And now, 231 years after Tammany Hall proclaimed a Columbus Day, and 531 years after the Italian captain’s landing in the Bahamas, most of our nation and other places in the world that have had their own Columbus Days are reversing Tammany’s proclamation.
So a Happy Indigenous Peoples’ Day to all of my Native and non-Native friends!
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