Indians, with little to celebrate about Columbus, gather to air their grievances

October 13, 1991|By John M. McClintock | John M. McClintock,Sun Staff Correspondent

QUEZALTENANGO, Guatemala -- "WANTED: CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS, Grand Thief, Mass Murderer, Racist, Initiator of the Destruction of a Culture, Rapist, Torturer, Oppressor of the Indian People and Founder of the Big Lie."

So says the cover of a pamphlet being distributed here by bitter Indians.

Many wish that Columbus had been greeted by ferocious Carib tribesmen rather than the kindly natives who fed him fruit after he stepped ashore in 1492.

The Caribs were cannibals.

Last week, as thousands of U.S. schoolchildren were proudly re-enacting the discovery, nearly 300 Indians and their sympathizers from 26 American countries congregated for a five-day conference to confront the mess it made of their lives.

Here in this ancient Mayan Indian capital built on the ruins of an empire that existed long before Columbus set sail, they came from all over the hemisphere to develop a plan of action covering mineral and fishing rights, land tenancy and other issues.

The disparate assembly included Eskimos from Alaska, Quechua-speaking Peruvians in their traditional llama rebozos, and beautifully garbed Panama Cuna Indian women in brightly colored mola robes with exquisitely beaded leggings.

For those at the Second Continental Encounter of 500 Years of Popular and Indian Resistance, Columbus initiated a nightmare in which an estimated 39 million Indians died within 70 years of the celebrated event.

The rest of the Indians were enslaved, feudalized or suffered the elimination of their cultures altogether.

For many Indians, conditions are not much different today, even in Guatemala, Bolivia and Peru, where they are the dominant population, or where they form a significant minority, as in Mexico, where they are 29 percent of the population.

In all of those countries, Indians are a political minority, exploited for their labor and reduced to subsistence living.

Some anthropologists say that the level of malnutrition among Mexican Indian populations exceeds 60 percent.

Indeed, The Spanish Embassy's annual celebration at the Christopher Columbus monument in Mexico City has traditionally been interrupted by Indians hurling eggs and tomatoes at the "invaders."

Yesterday, about 300 Indians surrounded the monument and lobbed a few eggs at the celebrants, while others climbed the statue to place a shawl over Columbus' brooding head. A picture of Emiliano Zapata, the peasant hero of the Mexican Revolution, was also hung from the statue.

Less obvious are the hundreds of Indians who sell chewing gum or beg in the streets of Mexico City, the refugees of the cruel poverty that rules their ancestral lands in sparse mountains and shrinking forests.

For many of the Mayans in Guatemala the Columbus nightmare en dures.

A star of the Indian meeting was Rigoberta Menchu, a Guatemalan Mayan who was forced to watch as her tortured brother was doused with gasoline and burned alive in 1979 by Guatemalan security forces.

The killers were commanded by an elite officer corps, many of them descended from Spanish invaders.

Ironically, when her father went for help, he turned to the Spanish Embassy. Spain's Socialist government has been playing a major role in seeking to resolve Central American conflicts.

The embassy was surrounded by troops and burned to the ground, killing Ms. Menchu's father, along with scores of others.

Last week, Ms. Menchu interrupted her 11-year exile -- mostly in Mexico -- for the third time to return to Guatemala for the Indian conference here in the old capital of her Mayan ancestors.

"Columbus should have been burned at the stake," said the internationally famous Indian leader.

"We are basically living under the same conditions of the Spanish Conquest. The Europeans own all the land and have all the power."

And so, while Spain and the rest of the Western Hemisphere are preparing for next year's 500th anniversary of the European discovery of the Americas, the remnants of the conquered will use the event to view its grim consequences.

Only 98 Indian nations or tribes remain of the hundreds that existed on Oct. 12 in 1492, when the explorer stepped ashore on a Bahamian island to find a naked people he described as being "very well built, with very handsome bodies and very good faces."

U.S. geographer William Denevan estimates that on the eve of the discovery the Western Hemisphere had an Indian population of 43 million to 72 million, mostly concentrated in the Inca Empire centered in Peru and the Aztec civilization of Central Mexico.

But disease, torture, massacres and brutal labor conditions created what U.S. historian Lyle N. McAlis ter called "a demographic disaster of continental proportions."

While some academics now place the current Indian population at about 40 million, many tribes continue to disappear into the dominant culture while others are victims of disease and the relentless erosion of tribal lands.

"My tribe has been ruled virtually extinct in Canada," said Yvonne Swan, a U.S. delegate at the Guatemala conference.

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