News: The Other Minority

Columbus Day is no joy for American Indians

David Sorcher

Vicki Whitewolf and Dutch Mader say Columbus' arrival in North America isn't celebrated by everyone.

Columbus Day is the most controversial American holiday. For most citizens, Oct. 11 is a chance to celebrate the country's "discovery" by Europeans. But for many American Indians in Greater Cincinnati, the date marks an event to be mourned.

"Christopher Columbus was not a discoverer, but a murderer and a slave trader who practiced genocide," says Larry Beckner, a Norwood resident of Cherokee ancestry.

American Indians often hold anti-Columbus day rallies during this time of year, according to Vicky Whitewolf- Marsh of Cincinnati, executive director of the nonprofit Indigenous Cultural Advocacy in Resources and Education (ICARE).

"Not only were we the first people here, but we're still here," she says.

ICARE focuses on improving community awareness, curbing drug and alcohol addiction and ending racial stereotypes put forth by sports teams and the media.

The 2000 U.S. Census counted 3,193 enrolled American Indians in Greater Cincinnati, including 709 in the city of Cincinnati. For a person to be considered enrolled, he must prove himself to have a quantum amount of blood. What is considered quantum varies depending on the tribe, Beckner says.

The United States legally recognizes 750 tribes.

'Never wave a flag'
American Indians originally came to the cities across America through a series of government relocation programs.

"The government hoped we'd become a part of the melting pot, be really happy and the reservations would go back to them," says Bob Rucca, executive director of the American Indian Education Center in Cleveland.

Many American Indians choose not to live on reservations but still often face discrimination and racism, celebrating their heritage while coming to terms with being an American.

During a recent powwow in Springfield, Ohio, some American Indians celebrated their U.S. military veterans, their U.S. flags and POW banners.

"This is our land," Whitewolf says. "It was our land before Columbus came and we defend it to defend our way of life."

She says the first woman to die in the war on Iraq was an American Indian.

"I'm not patriotic," says Davis Woundedeye, cultural director for ICARE. "I would never wave a flag. I still have my dad's flag; I'm keeping it because it belonged to him. If he was alive, I'd give it back to him. I'd tell him to take this thing."

Woundedeye says he would never serve in the army, even though his father did.

"We were the first people the U.S. government used chemical warfare on," he says. "They covered our blankets with smallpox and sterilized our women."

Woundedeye, who lived in Cincinnati for two years, now resides in Chicago. He grew up on a reservation.

"I see what the system does to our people," he says.

Even acknowledging one's heritage can be controversial, according to Beckner.

"My family is one of the families that did not discuss our native heritage," he says.

He says his mother wanted to tell him about her Cherokee ancestry but didn't because of his father's and grandfather's strict objections. A stigma associated with anything Indian kept him from learning about his heritage until he was much older, Beckner says.

Libby Newman of Fort Mitchell recently discovered she has Cherokee ancestry that no one openly disclosed when they were young.

"Our German and Scot/Irish heritage wasn't kept a secret," Newman said.

She describes the joy of sharing with her granddaughter such American Indian traditions as tribal regalia, smudging sage and telling stories.

"I want to learn the right way to pass my ancestry on to my granddaughter, not to let that stigma keep going," she says.

'They'd cringe'
A significant issue for many American Indians is the use of Indian mascots in schools.

"I wouldn't desecrate your grandmother or grandfather," Newman says. "Why desecrate ours?"

In Ohio, 225 schools use Indian mascots. A few years ago the American Indian Movement asked Anderson High School to drop its Redskins mascot. The public spoke out on both sides of the issue, and the Forest Hills Board of Education decided to keep the Redskins name and logo.

In 1997, Miami University changed its mascot from Redskins to Redhawks.

"It was a success, however, it will not be a total success until we get respect by ending all the mascots," Whitewolf says. "They say the mascots honor us, but we don't want honor. We want respect."

Racial conflict in Cincinnati seems to evoke empathy for other minorities. Woundedeye, who lived in Cincinnati during the 2001 uprising in Over-the-Rhine, says he walked African-American neighborhoods without any problems. The only racism he ever felt was from whites when he worked at a downtown hotel, he says.

"I think that if we trace our heritage back, we all have a part of an indigenous culture," Newman says. "Let's put the hate aside and find that common thread."

Many American Indians express dissatisfaction about what is taught about them and their history in schools.

"If people knew the history of the U.S., they'd cringe," Rucca says.

ICARE offers a free teacher's packet for educators who want to give an accurate account of native history.

"One of ICARE's goals is to start an Urban American Indian Center in Cincinnati to give urban natives a place to connect and also to have a place that educators can go to get competent cultural education material," Whitewolf says. "November is American Indian History Month and needs to be treated like African-American History Month in February."

American Indian children in urban families often visit reservations and engage in traditional ceremonies and other aspects of their heritage. Woundedeye says he has taken his 18-month-old son twice and says the city will never replace the reservation.

"You can take me anywhere in the world and I'd always be homesick for my land," he says.

For more information, visit or listen to "American Indian Voices" from 5-6 p.m. Saturdays on WAIF (FM 88.3).

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