Decolonizing Public Spaces: One Taino’s Perspective

columbus-866779_640There has been much said regarding monuments to confederate and colonizing “heroes”, on both sides of the debate. Some feel that removing the monuments is unwise: because we should revere history, because it cannot change the past, because it should remind Americans of our shame, because these monuments are public art and should cared for. Those who feel they should be torn down say it’s racist propaganda, it celebrates murder and destruction, the decimation of whole cultures. Both sides seem to have valid points, and I find myself, as a colonized Indigenous person, listening with 2 different sets of ears. It seems to me that the contrast here is the perspective from which these issues are being considered.

By perspective I speak of worldview, of the way we conceptualize the world we live in: our values, behavior and what our place is in the great scheme of things. Our worldview is reflected in everything we say and do, including our language, mental processes, art, social interactions, etc. Having grown up as an Indigenous person in a colonized society, I am familiar with both the Western worldview and the Indigenous world concepts. I am also aware of how difficult it can be to comprehend these differences if it’s something that’s never been considered before. It’s my hope to clarify some of these differences, as well as to suggest how it might apply to the debate regarding the decolonization of public spaces as well as the decolonization of the society we share. horoscope-639122_640

The western worldview is aggressive, materialistic, present tensed and linear. It limits itself to it’s own truth, believing the truth of others to be unsophisticated or mythical. Indigenous conceptualizations of the world are communal, soft spoken, it seeks understanding not imposition and recognizes the present’s responsibility to the future, “seven generations forward”.  Like stereotypes and paradoxes, these have variety in truth and may not apply in the same measure at the same time.

For the sake of clarity I add that, in the case of my own people, the Taino, there is also the matter of the different histories that need to be considered. In my case, my ancestral lands were thoroughly colonized well before the British had viable settlements within what is now the United States. This makes our shared history a little different, too. Colonization has existed much longer in the Caribbean and Central/South America than in the United States.

Ponce002

Ponce Cathedral. Original chapel built 1670. Demolished & rebuilt 1839.

I am Taino; Boricua, from the American colony known today as Puerto Rico, and I am an American citizen. This means I am of an Indigenous American People colonized by Spain in 1492, and since 1898, we are a colony of the United States of America. We were colonized not once, but twice. And for those unfamiliar with American history, Puerto Ricans are natural born American citizens since 1917, when the US was running out of soldiers to fight their wars.

I went through the American Public School system as implemented by the United States in the island I grew up in, and I graduated and got my high school diploma, like any other red-blooded, American teenager. Except I’m Taino. This means that, unlike many other red-blooded American teens, I grew up with a second set of rules and understandings, these handed down Ancestrally. It’s from this perspective that I’ll be sharing.

History and it’s downfalls

Some of those who believe that the monuments should remain, say that our history should be remembered and honored. Maybe we can add a plaque describing their shame, or move these to a museum where they can be shown, because we cannot allow ourselves to forget the atrocities committed. I know there is truth there, but the solution suggested- to keep the monuments – is not acceptable. The very basis from which these solutions spring forth reflect the average westerner’s lack of understanding to what colonization is, let alone the long lasting effects on those colonized. This makes the blind to how colonization continues today.

 

 

One of my clearest recollections from grade school is learning that history is written by the victors. My mother’s tears taught me this. What the colonizing forces promote as history is national propaganda. School teaches the nation’s justifications for historical abuse: the why and the because of Indigenous colonization, removal and genocide. But it rarely discusses how this was done. There are not many teachers who mention the actions taken against the native population beyond the old yarn of “all the Indians were relocated to reserves as a Vanishing population”; or as in my case, “all the Indians died”.
American history class seems to end with the establishment of the US as a country, but the horrors that were perpetrated to non-Europeans to achieve this, as well as how some of these actions continue today, are not discussed.

And in the case that my education in the American School system as instituted in Puerto Rico is considered limited for being Caribbean, I’d like to add that both my younger siblings, my daughter and all the children of my family living in the US, have gone through the American Public School system here, in the mainland. The history taught here is just as whitewashed. The adults in my family are constantly called in to school to discuss the kids “disrupting” history class and “arguing” with the teacher.

I believe this was the reason why Howard Zinn felt the compulsion to write his book, A People’s History of the US.

As Taino, an indigenous person from the Caribbean, I know my history. I know the struggles and the challenges, I know the horrors. As an Indigenous person, I’ve experience modern colonialism in the flesh.

According to the “history” of the conqueror, I don’t exist! My Taino people have been considered extinct for centuries. School taught me that my Ancestors were “lazy, weak and had a poor constitution for work”. I came home and shared this with my mother. She locked herself up in her room and cried. I didn’t understand then what I understand now.

We’ve been systematically slandered and murdered on paper.

Our “extinction” was done, not in the flesh, but by academic opinion; starting with Spanish greed and continued by American indifference. To this day, we Taino are still fighting academia to write us back in to the history we have been written out of. We have Taino people thoroughly convinced of their non-existence because that is what has been taught as our history. They got an “A” in class and lost their ancestry all in a semester. Death by the written word.

If my identity were based on the reverence of the history of the colonizer, I could only identify myself as Puerto Rican, not Taino. Remembering that history is recorded by those who’ve been holding the whip, reminds me to take it with a grain of salt.

History is to be studied with a critical eye, not revered as God’s honest truth.

Remembering our Past

You can’t un-ring a bell. We can’t change the past and what occurred. And I agree that mainstream society needs to remember the horrors of our history so we can all learn from it. But if looked at closely, we find another interesting conflict in perspective that goes unaddressed with regards to keeping these monuments as reminders of our shared history.

469px-Indian_Land_for_SalePublic art, unfortunately, has a way of becoming white noise; it becomes a passive, voluntary education that is rarely sought out by anyone but tourists. It’s not the tourists who need reminding of our history, it’s our own population. Because of this, the horrors of our history are best taught in our history classes, as it isn’t presently. It should be taught every year, in every grade, so that every child that goes through the American school system knows the actions American founders took to create this country- the good and the bad. A shared history should be taught from the different perspectives of the people involved, not just that of the conquerors. The experiences of the Europeans that directed the building of American countries are nowhere near similar to the experiences of others who were also here: the Indigenous, the African, the Chinese- or even other Europeans! (“Irish need not apply”) None of these people had the same experiences in the colonization and building of this country. Needless to say, because history is taught from the colonizer’s perspective, the focus tends to be on the “progress” and “growth” of the country as opposed to what was done to the “savages” who lived there and did the actual labor.

The same people who were hung for speaking their language, tortured for a thimbleful of gold, burned alive, body parts cut off and fed to Spanish wardogs.american-holocaust13

Americans should know the sacrifices other cultures have been made to pay, and continue paying, for the colonizing presence here. Americans should know how destructive the creation of the United States has been, how devastating it still is, to the original occupants of the Home of the Brave, as well as those who came here by force. I think that school plays, field trips, and classroom discussions should revolve around our history in a way that makes us contemplate what it means to be an American citizen in the world today, based on actions we have taken historically.

There is no connection to the holocaust that was/is the colonization of the Americas in the whitewashed history lessons that our children are taught.

These same lessons are the reason these monuments are erected. They celebrate the accomplishments of the justifications taught in class. They memorialize the why, ignoring the horrors of the how. There is no collective sense of remorse, ownership or acknowledgment for the horrors committed in the creation of the modern American hemisphere, because the horrors themselves have been glossed over while glorifying the people who committed them. They are spoken of as events that happened so long ago the details are foggy and “lost in the passage of time”. In the case of the US, even thought the country is just little over 240 years old, there is only a superficial memory of what was done. It’s a repeat of colonialist propaganda that removes the context that would help the mainstream colonizing society today understand the damage of colonialism and how it’s still perpetuated. It would help them understand why these monuments are so offensive.

The-Wounded-Knee-massacre-1890-3

Did you know that automatic weapons were used on women and children in the massacre of Wounded Knee?

And here is where perspective comes into play again. As mentioned before, the survivors of these horrors, and their descendants, are well versed in our history. We are still living the ravages of inter-generational trauma from the “how” that these monuments celebrate. We are not disconnected from the full reality of what these monuments stand for or the history behind them. In the meanwhile, the mainstream societies we live in have antiques that are older than the country itself. Those keeping these mementos take pride in rattling the history of those things: who made it, when, and how it came to be here; in other words, it’s history. Yet they have trouble recalling the American Holocaust. The conqueror’s academic system has historical amnesia… and for good reason.

Consider that our kids get just enough education to brainwash them into becoming unthinking, fanatical, American patriots. Americans who, like their historical antecedents, don’t need to consider the consequences of their actions beyond the glory of accomplishment. Not only is American history as taught incomplete, it’s twisted as well. Train this into your population from childhood and you have a good recipe for creating soldiers. Ours is a war-mongering country.

As for the history taught being a little askew- consider that an American citizen making war against the US, joining or aiding it’s enemies, is treason according to Article III of the Constitution of the US written in 1776. There are people today who are in hiding because they spoke out against our country, yet here in the US we celebrate people who actually took up arms against it.

The War between the States, the Civil War, was the south seceding from the Union and using weapons to do so. The people that supported the insurgence and helped fallen confederate soldiers made themselves enemies of the union. Per the US Constitution, Article 3, section 3: “Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort.”

What’s more, after these acts, and the incredible amount of deaths (hundreds of thousands of people), they lost! Yet Americans have yearly re-enactments, parades, holidays, museums, collectibles and souvenirs celebrating this event. We name our streets, our schools, our public buildings, our libraries after these people, who by law, betrayed the United States.lynch

My ancestry is Caribbean Indigenous. I have no connection to the civil war and maybe that is why I can’t wrap my mind around. I cannot understand building and maintaining monuments to those who have been enemies of the United States. As a human being, I cannot comprehend how it is acceptable to brush the horrors of our shared history under the rug, and then honor the same people who participated, encouraged and even turned against the US, to support their right to continue those horrors.

American Heritage not Hate

There are some who defend these monuments claiming ancestral pride; Heritage, not hate, they claim. As a human being who feels pride of their own ancient legacy, I understand that need. Everyone wants to feel that strong connection to their Ancestors, knowing they walk beside you. We want it to be a positive connection, too, something we can stand for with pride. And I also understand how hard that is to do when genocide and treason are part of that legacy as well. It’s easier to dismiss it and focus on the courage they had to have to follow their dreams.

Yet, I invite the western mind to try on an Indigenous perspective in this matter.

Move from self-centered to group-centered. Look at it as if there where more to life than what you want. Look at it as if what really matters is group well-being and best possible cohesion. Seeing yourself as part of the group helps you walk in another’s moccasins. It helps you consider the experience from a different perspective: those heroes, plucky enough to stand up for their beliefs, were genocidal terrorist to others.

Oklahoma City, Memorial, Bombing, Terrorism, Murrah

Oklahoma City National Memorial

Timothy McVeigh, and the Unabomber put together, killed less people in support of their beliefs. Like the colonialist heroes and the confederate rebels, they could be described as Americans “plucky enough to stick up for their truth”. Yet the Oklahoma memorial was raised to honor the victims, not the terrorists.

We don’t memorialize people who kill innocent American victims, yet these monuments to confederate and colonialist “heroes” are doing just that.

 A View Askew

Looking at this particular image we see how askew the mentality can be. A discussion over this image is what prompted the writing of this essay. This statue has absolutely nothing to do with the civil war. It doesn’t even have anything to do with the United States or it’s history as a country. This is Columbus! But there are about 13 officers of the law protecting his statue, and that’s only the one’s that were caught on film. If you look carefully you see there are more on the other side of the statue and even off camera.

Photo Credit:

I would think those sworn to serve and protect would do so to the living people who’s taxes pay their salaries, not a statue celebrating the destruction of whole cultures. We have people being murdered, getting run over and beaten, but our officers are there to guard a statue.

In a country that is constantly running out of money, that heavily taxes the population while allowing multi-million dollar companies to write off more than what families can make in a year – on a quarterly basis – this is a little unbalanced. As a Taino woman who knows her Ancestral history was actually affected by the person whom this monument honors, it’s definitely unbalanced.

In a country that uses the numbers of dead Americans to justify military action overseas; the fact that American lives are worth less than a bronze or concrete statue in the The Land of the Free, is not unbalanced… it’s downright offensive.

Art in Public Spaces

Coming from a creative background, I know that one of the functions of art is to express social commentary. Art speaks to us in several levels at the same time. It has a psychology and it has a language which involves feelings, regardless of the medium used to express it.

The statue of Columbus above, for example, doesn’t look amazing. It looks pretty much like any other bronze statue you’ll find in any old town. But consider it’s placement, how it makes you look up to it. It places Columbus literally “above” the viewer. It’s “statuesque”, right? Even if I couldn’t read the descriptive plaque posted below it, the sculpture itself tells me this person should be admired, looked up to. And even if I don’t admire the person represented, I am still physically forced to look up to it to admire the work.

Another detail to analyze, is how he’s posed. The thousand mile stare looking out towards the future implying progress and the blessings of Manifest Destiny that lie just within reach of his extended hand. If he only dare follow… he’ll reach India.

First, the viewer is forced to look up to Columbus. Then the pose speaks of the dream of moving forward, of betterment and of all good things that have come from following his dream- our dream.

american-holocaust1

“…stringing up their victims in lots of thirteen, in memory of Our Redeemer and His twelve Apostles, then set burning wood at their feet and thus burned them alive.” ~ de las Casas

This may sound trite, but it’s a psychological truth. And it’s part of the artist’s language. It’s also part of the language of colonization, a language that keeps colonizers in power by reminding the colonized of their place.

I, as a colonized Taino woman in 2017, am forced by my American colonizers, to look up to the Spanish oppressor who was responsible for the most brutal part of my ancestral history, and the almost total annihilation of my culture.

That historical figure tortured and raped my grandmothers, burned my grandfathers alive, smashed our babies against rocks and mutilated survivors, feeding the pieces to their dogs, and I’m forced to look up to him for the veneration of our shared past.

No.

Colonialism and it’s discontents

“Quit complaining.”, “You lost.”, “Get over it.”, “The arguments are getting old.”, “You people get all the money and still complain.”

These are words I’ve heard from the conquerors descendants when these topics come up. Instead of trying to understand, of being open to the possibilities of a different opinion, or even learning if their opinion has any base in reality, the claims of the non-conquering society are devalued and brushed aside. This reflects indifference, a chosen cultural insensitivity, the choice to remain ignorant. It’s preferring to ignore the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” of a great part of the population. A population who’s bodies, minds and spirits were broken in the building of our country. A population that gave their lives, willingly or not, to the building of our country. This doesn’t reflect a desire to honor our shared history, it reflects apathy.362px-Cicatrices_de_flagellation_sur_un_esclave

We should remember our history yes, but we need to remember all of our history, not just the accomplishments and how far we’ve come since then. Our history is not a pretty one. It’s a story of greed, and the abuse and torture that was used to satisfy it. It’s a story of lies and gluttony, of the consuming of whole, living, human cultures.

Yes, it’s hard to look at the behaviors of the past and not feel some aversion, especially when our first desire is to celebrate our ancestors. But I invite the non-Indigenous to consider that this, too, has something to do with our different perspectives.

The western perspective is about the individual and their actions in the world, it’s individual centered, it’s self- centered. The western perspective believes its own thoughts and propaganda. The West believes itself to be the epitome of sophistication, education and common sense, if not intelligence. It believes it is (at least in the US) a bastion of freedom and democracy. It believes it stands up for truth and righteousness, for human rights and civil freedoms. It rains fire and brimstone to those it judges guilty and immoral- according to it’s own values, of course, not that of the “ignorant” culture they judge.  It believes it’s own propaganda supporting its actions, which means they have little respect for the choices of others and recognize no boundaries.

The western perspective believes it’s own definition of the world as the correct one: they have all the right answers. Because they must be right, they are blind to their wrongs.

It’s difficult to acknowledge, to accept that one’s own ancestors -one’s own blood- purposefully participated in torture, mutilation and other genocidal activities we would find too horrifying to witness in a movie, let alone participate in real life. It’s hard to stand in the shame of these truths. So the western mind runs and hides. And when it can’t hide, it justifies the behavior somehow, tries to make it “right”. Western reality spins the story and changes the words used to make events seem less horrifying than what they are, to make them seem, somehow, acceptable. The western mind has chosen self-deception rather than responsibility and this only allows the behaviors to continue.

This is what western society has done with our shared history. Shame feeds lies to cover up the truth, it feeds projection and righteous indignation, it feeds anger and the hypocrisy it’s all based on. It feeds blame and judgement upon others, while ignoring what they have done historically, and have never stopped doing.

This mental trap is invisible to the western mind. So the pattern of the western perspective continues.

The Indigenous perspective is about the world and our relationship to everything in it, it’s community centered. There is a difference when you remove yourself as the center of your reality that allows you to see that we are all related, that not one of us is truly independent on this planet, that we are all interconnected one way or another. This is an ancient, cross-cultural truth that western science is only now catching up to. When this truth sinks in and is learned deeply, awareness blooms, compassion flows and how to make amends comes forth. One finds different ways of relating to the world and everything in it. One finds that proper boundaries, both held and respected, give us all enough room to be: to be wrong without shame, to be happy, to be truly free. We don’t need to have all the answers, we just need to work from the heart.

When decolonizing the past, whether we are Indigenous or of colonizer descent, instead of looking at how the even affects us, or makes us look, my suggestion is that we remove ourselves and only consider the event. Look at the event, as opposed to looking from the event; watch the imaginary movie, don’t live it. Getting our ego out of the way gives us a sense of distance and this gives us the opportunity to see things without judgement and blame. It gives room in our hearts to acknowledge a shared truth, see our actions as they are and feel compassion for the ignorance that allows those behaviors.

At least this is what I’ve found to work for me. Sometimes.

Fact is that none of us lived those events from the past, but we all suffer the consequences of both the disregard of the truth, and because of this disregard, the continuation of many of the same attitudes. Acknowledgment is the beginning of healing, and it’s the first step that can be taken towards a better relationship with the other people that also share, not only our history, but the country we live in and the planet we share. If the colonizing society today can’t face the truth of our shared past, none of us- colonizer nor colonized- will be able to “get over it“.

Especially while it continues to happen. Especially while it continues to be celebrated.

We should remember our history, yes. But I think that in a country that celebrates our diversity and advocates equality for all, there is no room for monuments that celebrate the people who made those same differences a good enough reason to rape, torture and destroy other human beings.

 

(c) A.Nanu Pagan, September 2017

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