Monday, October 11, 2010

Indigenous Peoples Day?

I distinctly remember the 500th anniversary of Columbus' voyage to the New World.  It was October, 1992 and I was sitting in elementary school learning a song about the virtues of Christopher's "discovery."  Even then, I was aware to some degree of the sham (and the shame) of the entire affair.  I knew, for instance, that:

  1. Columbus had no idea he would arrive at a new continent in the Western Hemisphere.
  2. He mistakenly assumed he was in India.
  3. Columbus had rather dubious motivations for trade route profiteering.
  4. Norse sailors (such as Leif Erikson) journeyed across the Atlantic centuries earlier.
  5. Columbus never landed on mainland America (named after explorer Amerigo Vespucci).

One of many common images critical of Columbus

So it is no surprise, then, that every year of my anti-establishment youth only grew my intense dislike for Columbus Day.  Not mentioned in my state-sponsored education was the growing indigenous movement against Columbus and the cultural imperialism and genocide of American natives that Columbus represented.  Yet when I discovered such a movement existed, I found intellectual camaraderie on this issue.

Simply put: Columbus Day should not be a federal holiday.  It has become a painfully outdated and increasingly menacing mark of cultural division in the United States.  I am not particularly in favor of federal holidays in general, of course, but if the role of government must include occasional recognition of particular historical figures, Christopher Columbus is an exceptionally poor choice.  While the biography of Columbus the man is not exceptionally bloody (source), the celebration of Columbus Day is hardly one of a navigator (who got lost and never found his intended destination).  Rather, Columbus Day is used rhetorically and symbolically to represent the expanse of European colonization generally and the establishment of the United States in particular.

Second perhaps only to slavery, the widespread massacre and subjugation of American natives is the darkest chapter of American history.  Surely slave trade moguls and plantation owners are undeserving of a federal holiday in contemporary America - so why should Columbus and the imperialism he represents be any different?  If not outright removed, Columbus Day should be replaced with "Indigenous Peoples Day" in recognition of the rich and diverse heritage that reverberated across North America long before European colonization.

UPDATE: October 9th has been designated "Leif Erikson Day" but remains obscure (source).

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