While talking with a colleague Friday, he mentioned our day off today, referring to the federal holiday designated as Columbus Day as Indigenous Peoples Day, wrying adding something about rewriting history.
Although his comment triggered me, I resisted the urge to give him my “fair and balanced” opinion, which would likely come across as a lecture. So I obliquely acknowledged his statement, understanding he feels like he’s walking across a political minefield during these highly contentious times.
So rather than lecturing him, I’ll think aloud here.
A long-used adage says history is written by those in power. Growing up, I internalized Columbus Day as celebrating the “modern” arrival of Europeans on the vast American landscape, which led to the European colonization of the continent, the birth of the United States, and my forebears coming in search of better lives. Arguably, I would not be here had Columbus not sailed west in search of a more direct route to the Indies.
The other side of the story is when Columbus arrived, the land was already occupied by many tribes of people. Over the coming centuries, the European settlers and United States government disenfranchised them of their rights, sought to erase their “primitive” cultures, and forced them to move to restrictive reservations. That meets the definition of genocide: “the deliberate and systematic destruction of a racial, political, or cultural group.”
Ironically, Columbus Day was first designated a national holiday not to celebrate the arrival of Christopher Columbus, rather as a one-time celebration to placate Italian Americans and ease diplomatic tensions with Italy. The holiday was declared by President Benjamin Harrison in 1892, following the murder of 11 Italian immigrants in New Orleans. At the time, Italian immigrants were seen as outside America’s racist view of itself as white and Protestant. Columbus Day didn’t become an annual federal holiday until 1968, possibly as much a celebration of Italian-American heritage as commemorating the arrival of Christopher Columbus.
Returning to my colleague's comment, celebrating Columbus' arrival in the Americas without acknowledging the sins his journey unleashed is truly rewriting history — or hiding those chapters in the basement so we don’t tarnish our view of the perfect American experiment. Our treatment of the indigenous peoples is among the sins we have yet to atone for as a nation.
U.S. states celebrating Indigenous Peoples Day
(Native American Day in South Dakota)
License: Creative Commons Zero, Public Domain Dedication, CC0