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Africa and Aboriginal Tuesdays: Columbus Day: Celebrating a holocaust

While Americans celebrate Columbus Day, American Indians remember one little toddler who played on the quiet banks of Sand Creek, until the morning in 1864 when the American soldiers came.

''Then, as one of the cavalrymen later told it, while his compatriots were slaughtering and mutilating the bodies of all the women and all the children they could catch, he spotted the boy trying to flee,'' wrote David Stannard in ''American Holocaust.''

''There was one little child, probably three years old, just big enough to walk through the sand,'' wrote a Calvary man.

''The Indians had gone ahead, and this little child was behind following after them. The little fellow was perfectly naked, traveling on the sand. I saw one man get off his horse, at a distance of about seventy-five yards, and draw up his rifle and fire - he missed the child. Another man came up and said, 'Let me try the son of a bitch; I can hit him.'

''He got down off his horse, kneeled down and fired at the little child, but he missed him. A third man came up and made a similar remark, and fired, and the little fellow dropped.''

Stannard, board member of the new American Indian Genocide Museum being established in Houston, said the most massive act of genocide in the world followed the arrival of Columbus in the Americas.

''The danger lies in forgetting,'' said Elie Wiesel, in a book of oral histories of the Jewish Holocaust.

''Forgetting, however, will not effect only the dead,'' Stannard said. ''Should it triumph, the ashes of yesterday will cover our hopes for tomorrow.

''To begin, then, we must try to remember.''

When Columbus first sighted land on Oct. 12, 1492, the American Indian Holocaust began. The Spanish were driven by their lust for gold and silver and the English fueled by their desire for property. Christians killed with zeal those they believed defiled with sin. Spain needed labor and set up missions in order to convert Natives. The English, however, did not bother. Their goal was exterminating the Indian race.

''Just 21 years after Columbus' first landing in the Caribbean, the vastly populous island that the explorer had re-named Hispaniola was effectively desolate; nearly 8 million people - those Columbus chose to call Indians - had been killed by violence, disease, and despair.''

Within a handful of generations, following their first encounters with Europeans, the vast majority of indigenous peoples in the Americas were exterminated.

Overall, 95 percent were obliterated.

''What this means is that, on average, for every 20 Natives alive at the moment of European contact - when the lands of the Americas teemed with numerous tens of millions of people - only one stood in their place when the bloodbath was over.''

While remembering the millions that were tortured, enslaved, murdered and eliminated by spread of diseases, Stannard said it is important to remember that each was a sacred and treasured human life.

Putting a human face on the Indian people who died, like the little boy whose remains were mangled at Sand Creek, Stannard said life should be remembered, as one reads of the Jewish Holocaust and horrors of the African slave trade, because the genocide has never stopped.

The Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States observed that 40,000 people simply ''disappeared'' in Guatemala during the 15 years preceding 1986. Another 100,000 were openly murdered.

''That is the equivalent, in the United States, of more than 4 million people slaughtered or removed under official government decree - a figure that is almost six times the number of American battle deaths in the Civil War, World War I, World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War combined.''

Almost all the dead and disappeared were Indians, direct descendants of the Mayas. Still today, indigenous in the Americas are tortured and slaughtered, their homes and villages bombed, while more than two-thirds of their rain forest homelands have been intentionally burned and scraped into ruin.

Hispaniola was only the beginning.

This article appears in Indian Country.

Brenda Norrell

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

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