Is Indigenous People’s Day ‘brown-washing’ history?

The person I think most about on Columbus Day isn’t the man himself, but Genghis Khan.

A good friend of mine visited Mongolia this summer and sent me a postcard of the Khan memorial outside Ulaanbaatar. The largest equestrian monument in the world, it honors one of the famous men in human history and the father of the Mongolian nation.

20171005 Whitley

I mean … seriously, when we say Khan was the “father” of the Mongolian nation, this isn’t a George Washington “Father of our Country” type of thing. Khan is literally the great-grand-daddy of about everyone in that part of the world.

Spoiler: it’s not because he was a great family man.

Now, I wasn’t going to write about Columbus Day this year, since I did in 2016 when I detailed how attacking Christopher Columbus is racist, but given that Salt Lake City went ahead with recognizing Indigenous People’s Day this year, it seemed appropriate.

Upon this recognition, Utah League of Native American Voters spokesman Moroni Benally said the day “represents a step towards correcting a history that has been sanitized.”

Well, frankly, Mr. Benally (love the first name by the way) blindly writing love-letters to indigenous peoples ALSO sanitizes history.

First of all, close to home, we do a really good job of recognizing indigenous peoples in Utah. That’s where we got our name. Or that is to say, we recognize the region’s most violent, warlike indigenous people.

Because the Utes had horses, they had an enormous military advantage, which they used to dominate other tribes in the area. In an extremely sanitized recounting on the website, we read “Horses facilitated Ute raiding and trading, making them respected warriors…”

“Raiding.” Ahem. “Respected warriors.” That means they killed and enslaved tribes that were too weak to resist them.

The implication that Europeans were the only people who ever did anything wrong in what we now call the Americas is wrong, deluded, and frankly racist. If we were to compare the number of indigenous people over the centuries killed by Europeans compared to those killed by other indigenous people, well I think the Europeans would come out ahead.

I have to say “I think” because, of course, those indigenous peoples didn’t keep the historical records necessary to check this.

We reinforce this dishonesty in our popular culture, which villainizes the founders of our culture while insipidly portraying all native tribes as peaceful, harmonious, and saintly. (Let’s call this “brown-washing.”)

For example, the 2015 Oscar-bait film The Revenant exquisitely demonizes Americans’ behavior toward native tribes, notably the Arikara. (At one point one of the US soldiers brags that he needs to “Shoot some civilization!” into the Indians.) But when we meet a Pawnee refugee in the film, whose tribe was wiped out by the Arikara, the story point and historical reality is glossed over very quickly.

So to illustrate this, here’s some video from the director’s cut of Dances With Wolves where one native tribe murders another tribe.


So sure, by our modern standards, the treatment of Latin American natives by Columbus, and the ensuing Spanish conquest of Latin America, was cruel. But you know what was 100 times worse than the Spanish? The cultures they conquered.

In July, archaeologists uncovered a literal tower of human skulls in Mexico – victims of the Aztecs’ human sacrifices. The Aztecs were so brutal toward weaker tribes that those tribes joined forces with Cortés to destroy them. Gun to my head, I’d certainly prefer if the Spanish didn’t conquer me, but I’d take that any day over the Aztecs crushing my head and putting it in a tower of skulls.


Throughout all of human history but the last sliver of it, conquerors were heroes and the vanquished simply got absorbed into the society that had conquered them. But for most of time, conquerors could only do this to other people who (ahem) looked like them. Europeans killed and enslaved other Europeans, Asians killed and enslaved other Asians, Africans killed and enslaved other Africans, and so on.

The only reason “racist” Europeans were able to conquer people who didn’t look like them is because they had developed technologically and politically advanced civilizations (Guns, Germs, and Steel blah blah blah) that could support trans-oceanic, military colonization. It would be insensitive to dwell on that or gloat, but it’s true. If Europeans hadn’t conquered natives, natives would have conquered other natives.

Here’s a scene of rarely seen native-on-native violence, this one from Apocalypto.


But from that colonization came the freedoms we take for granted, which gave birth to America, which gave birth to the Industrial Revolution, which ended slavery, which allowed us to enjoy the peaceful, non-tower of human skulls-life we now enjoy.  Also saying that European expansion was somehow offensive to a grand, mystic, modern sensibility of multiculturalism is insipid given that the modern principle of multiculturalism was born out of that expansion.

It’s extremely inconsiderate of history to not hold up the measures of self-righteous, modern day mobs, it’s true. But if Mr. Benally and others thinks that indigenous peoples were all saints, they are either lying to themselves, lying to us, completely ignorant, or just plain racist. The Utes were killers. The Aztecs were savages. The Revenant was a steaming pile of dishonesty to to assuage the liberal guilt of insecure white people.

And for those who still aren’t convinced, let’s fly out to Mongolia next month to protest Genghis Khan Day.