It was either Francis Parkman or Frederick Jackson Turner or the composer of the theme from F Troop who first laid down an essential truth about the American experience: In the end, Paleface and Redskin both turn chicken.
Now the same white male power structure that made Black History Month the shortest month in the calendar and sabotaged the Susan B. Anthony dollar by making it indistinguishable from a quarter is at it again. And the oppression is coming from the supposedly sympathetic, progressive side: The city of Seattle, Washington, has designated an “Indigenous Peoples’ Day” on the second Monday of October — a day already reserved for the federal Columbus Day holiday.
Seattle’s City Council unanimously passed the proposal for a non-official city holiday earlier this week. Mayor Ed Murray will sign Indigenous Peoples’ Day into law Monday, and he noted to local media that the day is only an homage that has no municipal weight (no parking relief). The legislation “will honor local Native-American tribes,” the Seattle Times reports. Murray claims Indigenous Peoples’ Day will “add new significance to the date without replacing the Columbus Day tradition,” according to the paper.
Of course, to displace Columbus Day you would actually have to believe in something: the perfectly defensible point that the arrival of late-medieval Europeans in the Americas was a catastrophe for native inhabitants so awful that it should not be celebrated. But making that decision would require a point of view, and half-assed gestures like Seattle’s are the negation of even the idea of having a point of view.
The emptiness of the gesture is there right in the name of the day: It’s not Tecumseh Day or Ira Hayes Day or Sacagawea Day or Russell Means Day. Those were actual people with actual legacies. By honoring them or not honoring them you are making a judgment about what their reputations mean. You are, in the jargon of post-colonial theory, granting them agency. That’s why “Martin Luther King Day” has a resonance that “Black People Day” would not.
No sooner said than done, local Italian Americans are claiming offense on behalf of 250,000 Seattleites of Italian descent. But even they can’t get beyond a general condemnation of “political correctness” to the real Genoa-is-more-than-just-a-salami heart of the matter. “We empathize with the death and destruction of the Native Americans,” gun-control activist Ralph Fascitelli told reporters Thursday during a conference at an Italian restaurant. And that is pretty much the extent of what Indigenous Peoples’ Day will honor — a vague offense against a blob of people so undifferentiated we can’t even bother to single out any one of them. The saddest part of the I.P.D. controversy is that it reminds us that this kind of sleepyheaded nod of half-attention has already been enshrined at the federal level. In October 2008, at the height of the financial market crash, President Bush took time out to sign Congressman Joe Baca’s (D., California) “Native American Heritage Day Act of 2008,” which set a holiday for the day after Thanksgiving. It’s not clear what part of the heritage we’re honoring, or even if the holiday continued after 2008, because the act could have been more fairly titled the “We Don’t Really Care Act.”
Could it be that the Emerald City just doesn’t have candidates worth a day of celebration? The U.S. Census Bureau estimates the current population of the overwhelmingly white city at 652,405, with American Indians and Alaska Natives making up just 0.8 percent of the total. Still, that’s 5,200 people. Couldn’t Murray just give some local Indian the key to the city?
Maybe it would be easier if there were a particular Indian the city could laud, perhaps a revered peacemaker steeped in both history and myth, a chief even, with a name like Chief . . . Seattle. No, that would be too easy.