Today is Columbus Day, and throughout the internet he is being condemned as a reprehensible manifestation of all that is bad about the western conquest of the Americas. I guess there is a legitimate point being made. It’s true that when I was in grade school we were told that Columbus discovered America, which opened up the New World for European colonization that led eventually to the American War of Independence. But, since I was raised in Minnesota, we were also reminded that Scandinavians beat him by centuries, so there!
There was never much said about the violent conquest of lands belonging to others. It was more about the opening up of a vast, mostly empty land abounding in possibilities of new life, opportunity, and freedom for those willing to face its challenges. Later, when we lived in the NYC area, Columbus Day was a celebration of Italian heritage with little publicity given to the man himself. In any case, I’m willing to give Columbus a break. He was a man of his age, not of ours. He had the courage to set out on a journey into the unknown on ships no more sea worthy than large dinghies, and, from a European point of view, he did discover a new land that inspired the ensuing years of European voyages of discovery. Those voyages redefined what the world was and could become.
It’s not much of a holiday where I live. Except for a notation on calendars, life goes on as normal. With that in mind, the effort to rebrand the day to honor indigenous peoples is well intentioned but misses the target. A more pragmatic solution might be to eliminate Columbus Day as a federal holiday, perhaps giving federal employees the time off as a floating holiday. Then establish another day at another time in the year to honor indigenous peoples. My own choice would be December 29, the date of the massacre at Wounded Knee, but who wants to remember that during “the holidays.” As an alternative I might suggest June 25, remembering the victory over Custer at Little Bighorn. More important, as we have moved Black history into a more visible place in school curricula, we should do the same with Indian history. It’s a rich, colorful history that goes far beyond and is more interesting than the romanticized fiction of a peaceful people at one with nature and each other.