Indigenous communities and their allies around the country had targeted statues of Christopher Columbus as representative of a vicious colonialism, without much success until protests erupted after the police killing of George Floyd in May. Racial justice activists protested not only against statues representing defenders of white supremacy and support for slavery, but also targeted Columbus and what he stood for.
News reports from local sources around the country found that at least 22 statues of Columbus have been destroyed or removed since May. In New Haven, Connecticut, a statue of Columbus in a historically Italian neighborhood a few blocks from the city’s downtown green was removed on June 24 after various stakeholders agreed it no longer belonged there. A week later the city’s Board of Education voted to rename the Columbus Family Academy, which is a public school in a predominantly Latino neighborhood. The new name is still to be determined after discussions that included members of the community.
Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Norman Clement, an indigenous activist and supporter of Black Lives Matter who convened a commemoration on Oct. 12 for indigenous Peoples’ Day that’s replaced Columbus Day. Here, he discusses his motivation for holding these annual events, the progress he has seen and the struggles still unfolding across the U.S.
NORMAN CLEMENT: It’s something I’ve done every year. Usually it’s fighting against the statue, or Columbus School. In other years, it was more of a demonstration or resistance. We finally have some recognition. I went to Key Bank in Fair Haven; they had a flyer on the door that said, “We will be closed for Indigenous People’s Day.” And I was like, that’s the first time I’ve seen recognition like that from a major corporation or company. So it really struck me, Hey, this is really happening. And I was struggling with how I was feeling about it. I was really happy, but then I was saying, Why isn’t this something that happens everywhere? And that’s what I want to try and do, to have people recognize who they are. I work with the immigrant community and I try to get people to recognize that just because they speak Spanish, that doesn’t mean that’s who they are. They need to look into their indigenous side and discover that. I’ve been trying to do that for quite some time, slowly getting people to understand that.
MELINDA TUHUS: Norman Clement, What do you think are the top two or three issues that indigenous people are fighting for that you want people to stand behind you?
NORMAN CLEMENT: One of the biggest issues, which would solve many, many problems among indigenous people, would be to have our treaties recognized. There are 3,800 treaties that were signed with the U.S. government as us being sovereign nations and every single one was broken by the U.S. government. They’re not recognized. The reservations are little scraps of earth they put us on and they are still being encroached upon whenever they find oil or uranium or gold or whatever they’re seeking.
MELINDA TUHUS: What would it mean to recognize the treaties? Would that mean the government giving back land? Or if white people were settled there would they have to give up their homes? What exactly would it mean?
NORMAN CLEMENT: We’re not necessarily looking for people to give up their homes. I think something just happened in Oklahoma, where half of Oklahoma was just recognized as indigenous land. I believe it was over a lawsuit where an indigenous man was arrested and wanted to be tried in indigenous courts. That would be one thing. And like with this whole issue around murdered and missing women. There’s a law still in effect — people have been fighting against it for awhile — like a lot of reservations have their own police departments, they have their own courts. But if a white man murders an indigenous woman or harms an indigenous woman, or any person for that matter, he cannot be tried in indigenous court; he goes to the white court, he gets tried by white people, the U.S. justice system. Just things like that.
And of course we want some reparations. This whole country built on our land. There would be no wealth in the U.S. if it weren’t for our lands, so why shouldn’t we live economically secure? And that doesn’t happen. A lot of reservations have 60, 70, 80 percent unemployment, mass suicides, drug addiction. We don’t get services. All these things happen because of colonialism.
MELINDA TUHUS: Would that take the form of payments from the government to improve health and education and different things, or what?
NORMAN CLEMENT: Well, not individual payments, but resources to develop our own industries. Stop stripping the oil and uranium out of our lands, and let us make that money, provide jobs for our people. You go out west and there’s all these man camps — and that’s the main reason there are missing and murdered indigenous women because of these man camps. Most of the people working there are white, even though they are on indigenous lands, they don’t get the benefit.
MELINDA TUHUS: I know there’s a lot of different opinions in Indian Country, but I wonder if you have any sense of whether there’d be as much mining on indigenous lands if the people controlled their economy?
NORMAN CLEMENT: Probably not, but the benefits of infusing money into the economy is also developing new ideas. I know after Standing Rock, there’s a lot of solar energy companies springing up on indigenous lands, providing solar power, wind power, there’s a lot of different things being talked about, but there’s no money to develop these things.