For many in the United States, marking the 500th anniversary of the arrival of Columbus in the New World is cause for historical reflection and special events of all kinds. For Native Americans the occasion presents an opportunity to use public relations to set the record straight and focus attention on Indian issues and concerns.
"Five hundred years ago, Columbus washed up on Indian shores. There went the neighborhood."
This remark by J.T. Goombi, a Kiowa, and first vice president of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), sums up the point of view of the peoples whose ancestors had lived on this continent for centuries before Christopher Columbus "discovered" it for the Europeans in 1492.
NCAI, based in Washington, DC, showcased American Indian perspectives in a program on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol on Oct. 11. The special event kicked off the organization's week-long convention on Indian affairs, held in Arlington, VA. At press time, many of the sources quoted in this article were planning to attend this major national gathering.
It's no accident that the NCAI chose the U.S. Capitol lawn as the site for its rally. As Executive Director Michael Anderson, a Creek, stated: "We chose to come to the nation's capital on the Quincentenary to make a statement to the American people. American Indian and Alaskan Native people have survived 500 years of European contact aimed at exterminating, assimilating, dividing, persecuting, relocating and redefining who we are as indigenous cultures and sovereign nations.
"We are here to stay," he added. "It is time to recognize this fact and to begin fulfilling the many promises made to our people by the federal government in the U.S. Constitution and more than 300 treaties which were signed and ratified. We fulfilled our part of the bargain by giving up 99% of the real estate. It is time for America to fulfill its side of the deal."
For some Americans, the Quincentenary of the arrival of Columbus in the New World is a cause for celebration. For Native Americans, it is an occasion for mourning. But it is also an opportunity to apply public relations strategies and tactics to disseminate positive information about the Native American heritage and the problems and issues that concern this segment of society.
Suzan Shown Harjo, who is both Cheyenne and Muscogee, gave PRJ some disheartening statistics on Native Americans since the time of Columbus. She's president of both the Morning Star Foundation and the 1992 Alliance, two Indian organizations also based in Washington, DC.
Between 1492 and 1500, eight million of the indigenous people in the Caribbean died, either of diseases brought by the Europeans or by violence at their hands. At the time of Columbus, Harjo stated, the most conservative estimate of the native populations in what are now the contiguous 48 United States was about 50 million. By 1900, there were only 250,000 Native Americans. "Now the number is two million, so it takes a long time to catch up," she observed.
Create positive awareness
Most, if not all, American Indian tribes view the Quincentenary as a chance to set the historical record straight, to confront current wrongs, to attack ethnic stereotypes and negative images, and to create a positive awareness of this country's original peoples. But the tactics and specific activities organized by native groups to get their messages across vary greatly.
Some accentuate the positive in Indian life and minimize any sense of confrontation. For instance, the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma sponsored a 20-mile walk on June 6, open to Indians and non-Indians alike, retracing a portion of the 500-mile "Trail of Tears." Thousands of Choctaws were relocated to Indian Territory during the winter of 1931-'32, and an estimated one-third died along the way from starvation, exposure and disease.
The walk was not so much a reaction to the Columbus fanfare as it was a celebration of the state of Oklahoma's "Year of the Indian," explained Choctaw spokeswoman Judy Allen, who is editor of the tribe's Bishinik Newspaper, based in Durant, OK. …