For the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Simon Pokagon of the Potawatomi Nation wrote a tiny birchbark book titled “A Red Man’s Rebuke” to protest the rationale for a fair celebrating the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ “discovery” of America.
“In behalf of my people, the American Indians, I hereby declare to you, the pale-faced race that has usurped our lands and homes, that we have no spirit to celebrate with you the great Columbian Fair now being held in this Chicago City, the wonder of the world,” he wrote.
“No; sooner would we hold high joy-day over the graves of our departed fathers, than to celebrate our own funeral, the discovery of America.”
I encountered Pokagon’s book in an exhibition at the National Museum of the American Indian.
I don’t mention it to rain on anyone’s Columbus Day celebrations. It was a reminder that the argument over how we think about Columbus didn’t start with a bunch of leftist hooligans trying to topple a couple of statues in the park.
Pokagon had pressed the case 130 years ago, as had his father, both trying to convince the pale faces to make good on the compensation promised when the Potawatomi sold their lands, which included Chicago.
Pokagon’s story is part of a larger gap in our collective education that glosses over inconvenient truths about the origins of our nation, starting with the nettlesome question of how anyone could discover a place where other human beings already lived.
I traveled to Washington, D.C., this past week to keep a pandemic promise to myself to see old friends and pay my respects to our nation’s capital after it was defiled by Trump’s barbarians on Jan. 6.
The Capitol building itself remains off-limits to visitors, but the museums are mostly reopened.
My priority was to visit some we hadn’t previously seen: the National Museum of African American History & Culture, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the American Indian Museum, a combination that we came to think of as the Walk of Shame.
Though completely different places, all three are unavoidably connected by the theme of man’s inhumanity to man and by the racism so deeply ingrained in our culture.
Every school child in America should get a chance to see those museums.
I’d also like to see some federal judge make it part of the sentence of every idiot who paraded through the Capitol rotunda in hopes of keeping Trump in office, requiring them to pay special attention to the exhibit about the decades-long enforcement of the Indian Removal Act, the forced relocation and extermination of Native Americans, the main purpose of which was to make more land in the South available for white farmers to grow cotton — using Black slaves.
And they should have to visit the African American museum to truly contemplate the white brutality that was required to enforce slavery and the threat of violence that perverted the next century even after abolition.
In the United States, we like to think of ourselves as the heroes in the Holocaust story because of America’s role in winning the war. But the Holocaust museum reminds us one reason Hitler could get away with his initial discrimination against Germany’s Jewish population — including forced segregation — was that it mimicked how America treated its Black citizenry at the time.
That’s before you even get to how America initially turned its back on Jewish immigrants trying to flee Hitler.
There’s also a display showing Gen. Dwight Eisenhower visiting one of the internment camps at war’s end to encourage documentation of the atrocities.
“I made the visit deliberately, in order to be in position to give firsthand evidence of these things if ever, in the future, there develops a tendency to charge these allegations merely to ‘propaganda,’ “ Eisenhower said, foreseeing the Holocaust deniers who remain with us today.
Americans, white Americans especially, don’t like looking at our past, our true past. Until we do, we’ll never move forward.