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Friday, January 13, 2012

Ponce de Leon vs. Native Americans: Who is happier?

I recently came across this announcement of the University of Miami's 500th Anniversary commemoration for Ponce de Leon's voyages to Florida.  Since I am currently teaching a course entitled "Writing About Postcolonialism and Genre Fiction" (which I'll have to discuss in detail later), the event caught my attention.  Why?  Because the language used to describe the event seems, in my view, offensive towards those who were inevitable victims of Spanish, British, French, and American colonialism (in de Leon's case, we're obviously talking about the first).

Those victims -- we call them Native Americans, which is a pathetic term to describe the enormous variety of tribes/groups that used to live freely in the U.S. hundreds of years ago -- were stripped of their lands, destroyed by colonial hands or disease, and otherwise decimated by the colonial system.  So to talk about Ponce de Leon, an understandably famous explorer, within the language of celebration ("A public conference commemorating the five hundredth anniversary of the landing of Juan Ponce de León on Florida shores" -- commemoration associated, more often
than not, with ceremony, memorial, and remembrance) is to privilege the imperial center (Anne McClintock's term from "The Angel of Progress") over the voices of the natives who survived him.
While it's true that many of the talks have to do with the interactions of Ponce de Leon, the Spanish Empire, and the Native Americans (though too many use the derogatory term "Indians"), such talks are still held under the rubric of the celebration which speaks not of Natives in its title and description, but of those things which are the domain of the colonizer.

When will we get a major "commemoration" which privileges indigenous voices in relation to the famous explorers who led to their near-extinction?  Perhaps we should have "Florida at the Crossroads: Five Hundred Years of Native Encounters, Conflicts, and Exchanges" instead of "Florida at the Crossroads: Five Hundred Years of Encounters, Conflicts, and Exchanges" followed by a reminder that this is all about Ponce de Leon's 500th anniversary...

Then again, I'm one of those crazy liberal people.

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