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Christopher Columbus Statue Down – On “Cowboys and Indians”


As people call for the pulling down of colonial statues in the wake of the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the statue of Christopher Colombus in New Jersey has been taken down during the night by a Municipality there. Protesters had rightly called for it to be removed because the man symbolizes the colonization that led to the genocide of Native Americans. Incidentally, as demonstrators surrounded the statue when it was already on a removals truck, it fell and broke into bits. So, decades of organizing and protest created the momentum to topple statues all over the place, and when this “momentum” reaches its “moment”, this statue then seems even to have “disintegrated”.

It is the moment now to remember exactly how the film industry, for decades, portrayed the colonial class as it invaded North America, displacing and killing the inhabitants, all the while pretending it was taking over terra nullius, or land with no-one on it.

The film genre is titled “Cowboys and Indians”. The main personages in this form of “entertainment”, just like for Cops and Robbers (see previous article) are absent from the narrative. The perpetrators, who actually grab the land, are completely absent from the story line. It is no wonder. Because their role, indeed, bears no scrutiny.

So, the film industry’s flagship narrative, “Cowboys and Indians”, hides from view the colonial class of settlers that is, in reality, doing the land-grab, and instead uses their hired “cowboys” to hound out, even exterminate, the people living there. They get the land by getting rid of the people on it. A crime if ever there was one. 

Instead of the colonizer land-grabbers, we get to see the poorest and lowest, and probably most unwashed, people in the working class, people without families or homes, who are portrayed in the front line on their horses, as “protecting” land (for themselves?) by their “brave exploits” with guns – guns used against supposed “hordes” of supposedly ruthless people armed with nothing but bows and arrows and whose land is being taken on behalf of colonial settlers. What kind of a crooked narrative is that? 

In the films, on whose behalf do the cowboys act? Who pays them? Do the cowboys get to own the land? Never! Not even the jeans they wear and the biltong they eat will belong to them. They don’t even have wives or children. But, they are the “heroes” of this genre. They are paid as “cowboys” by the invaders to be their heroes. Not ours. Or even their own. But, we get tricked by the narrative because the people who do the hiring and the paying of the cheap cowboy-labour are made invisible. Like the “cops” in “cops and robbers”, the “cowboys” in “cowboys and indians” are supposedly independent actors, when they are, in fact, no more than lackeys of a ruling class, made invisible.

The film genre hides the land-grabbers by keeping them out of the narrative. And it is in the interests, of course, of this imperialist class, as it becomes the new class of land-owners in any colony, to have such a narrative. The war of attrition between cowboys and Indians was useful even in the long run to the ruling class. Its effect is to prevent any easy unity between those whose land is being expropriated and those working for the expropriators as wage slaves. But, people who get the statue of Christopher Columbus taken down have finally begun to attack the narrative. Look how many people had to hit the streets, for how many days, just to get the visible representations of systemic colonial racism removed.

So, as people rise up against police violence, on one hand, and colonial racism, on the other, it is worth taking the moment to reflect not only on the odious statues, like Queen Victoria, Adrien d’Epinay and the inscription on one that reads, “Je dois a la France d'être un homme pensant” in Mauritius, but also on the ordinary things in imported popular culture that bring our submission to this same tyranny of class oppression.


Lindsey Collen

for LALIT.