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The Five Levels of Columbus

Peruvian Mayor and Italian-Americans at Columbus Day ceremony at Columbus Park, Port Chester, NY (

Another Columbus Day has come and gone. This latest one was quieter than some previous ones. It is as if each side in the culture wars has staked out its turf and for the moment is content to let things ride.

Columbus may be considered a five-stratum tel. Tell is an archaeological term. It refers to a human-built mound over time mainly from debris by inhabitants living at the same site. Archaeologists excavate such tells until they reach bedrock. Each stratum or layer is carefully marked. One of the most famous tells is located at Megiddo, the mound that gave us the word mount Megiddo equals Armageddon. It is a mound of over 25 levels and served as the source for the book The Source by James Michener.

Normally, the layers are counted from top down since that is the sequence in which they are uncovered. In this blog on Columbus, I will start from the bottom up.


Historic Columbus refers to Columbus in his own time frame – Who was he? What did he do? Why did he do what he did?  Although the ancient Greek Herodotus is generally referred to as the father of history from nearly 2500 years ago, the academic concept of history is more recent. The first graduate school in the United States was at The Johns Hopkins in 1876 following its post-Napoleon development in Germany. Many history organizations here were founded in the immediate aftermath of this new way of pursuing knowledge. One key element of the methodology was the search for and use of sources to shed light on what actually had occurred.

This layer is primarily the realm of scholars. Archaeology can contribute as excavations reveal artifacts and texts from the period under review. Sometimes archives in churches and libraries provide previously unknown or unexamined materials which can be woven into the narrative. Even when the subject is a single individual like Columbus, scholars need to broaden their horizons both geographically and chronologically to situate the figure in his time and space. What was he thinking when he was planning his voyage west? What did he know? What did he hope to achieve. Here is where letters, diaries, and journals from the time period and in his own hand become important.

Sometimes people or events studied within the academic arena break out into the public arena, for example, Hamilton, the musical.


Columbus, of course, never reached what became the United States. Why then did the Founding Fathers make such a big deal about including naming the capital of the country after him?

At the birth of the United States, we were a young country. Obviously. But we were also young in time. We had severed our ties to England. That meant we could not draw on English history as our own. The events and people in English history well-known to the Founding Fathers were now off limits. Our historical memory as Americans began on July 4, 1776. So while England, France, Spain, and later Germany and Italy could boast of their ancient and long-lived cultures, we could not. Instead, we had to create a past for ourselves so we, too, could be proud of our heritage.

One obvious example was through the (Protestant) Bible. We were God’s New Israel. Suddenly we had a heritage that was thousands of years old, even older than England!

Another way was through Christopher Columbus. His stature in 1792 made his tricentennial a significant event to people seeking to create a heritage for the country. For the next century through the quadricentennial belatedly celebrated in 1893, Columbus became a national icon. The female version Columbia became a symbol of the country before Lady Liberty was erected in New York.

This Columbus had a national impact. Many streets, parks, rivers, and cities are named after him as a national hero.


When Italians began migrating to the United States in great numbers, they followed the example of the Founding Fathers. The new immigrants were not biological sons or daughters of the American Revolution. The Irish and the Germans had been here longer. So the Italians fastened their attention to Columbus, just as the Founding Fathers had. Suddenly the Italian immigrants had a more than 400-year tradition of being in the New World; they were part of the American national narrative.

For the next century following the Columbus quadricentennial, the Columbus Day celebration shifted from being a national event, to one more closely identified with Italian Americans. In communities with a significant Italian immigrant population, Columbus Day became an even important holiday. Finally it became a legally recognized national holiday. Of course, if you live in a community without a significant Italian presence, then Columbus Day was a vestige of the time when it was a national holiday.


There has been another wave of immigrants to the United States since the Italians arrived in force. For Hispanic-Americans, Columbus Day provided a ready-made opportunity to connect to their new country. Part of the reason was that Columbus was not an unknown figure to immigrants from Latin America. It was easy for them to join the parade, quite literally.

Consider my own village in the suburbs of New York. Earlier in the 20th century, it had experienced a wave of Italian immigration. There are few families or businesses dating to prior to World War I here. The next wave was from Central America and other Latin American countries. The mayor has changed from being Italian to being Peruvian.

Here is where the stratum begin to merge. For decades, the Italians had taken the lead in organizing the parade and arranging for the funding. This year the Peruvian Mayor joined with them in laying a wreath in front of the statue of Christopher Columbus in Columbus Park. The Mayor also was the grand marshal of the parade. All the school bands from elementary school to high school participated in the parade. There were other bands as well from a variety of organizations, ethnic, social, cultural.  Elected officials were there including the County Executive, the State Senator, and the State Legislator. The parade truly was a community event.


In the culture wars, Columbus has become a vilified figure of evil. He certainly should be toppled if not thoroughly erased from the American national narrative. Communities have had mixed reactions to the Woke admonition. Some have adhered to the Woke guidelines and cancelled Columbus.  Some have straddled the issue and sought to pay homage to both sides. Parades tend to be for Columbus while ceremonies at a fixed location are more likely to be Woke. Each community makes its own decision.

The number of Hispanic-Americans probably exceeds the number of Woke Americans. This means that just as Italians changed the way Columbus Day was celebrated in the United States, so Hispanic Americans are likely to impact the way Columbus Day is recognized. Hispanic-Americans do not necessarily subscribe to the view that Columbus Day should be a day of mourning for what Columbus did himself to indigenous people or what others later did. Certainly not the parade I watched in my own village. Like the Founding Fathers and Italians who sought to celebrate their American identity, the Hispanic are  bringing their own decidedly un-Woke fervor, enthusiasm, and energy to the event. It is the one national holiday, where they can most enthusiastically express their American identity that is directly based on their own heritage. We can witness a similar dynamic unfolding in voting. These people are proud to be American and want to celebrate it.

Columbus Day versus Indigenous Peoples’ Day: A Lose-Lose War

Columbus Is More Than a Day (

Columbus Day is in the news again. Given that it is months away, its appearance may seem surprising. However, in the ongoing culture wars, the battle continues throughout the year. The reason for the recent appearance of Columbus Day is due to its defeat in three states.

According to a blog headline dated April 3, 2019, New Mexico just became the latest state to ditch Columbus Day for Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

As of this year, New Mexicans will celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day instead of Columbus Day, a move that proponents say better reflects the state’s culture. According to 2017 U.S. census data, more than 12 percent of the state’s population is indigenous.

This report was followed on April 22, 2019, with an article entitled Two more states are dumping Christopher Columbus to celebrate indigenous people instead.

Vermont and Maine are the latest to join the growing number of cities, states and municipalities that have renamed the October holiday for the people who lived in America long before the explorer arrived.

Notice the choice of words in the two headlines: Columbus Day is ditched and dumped.

Rep. Debbie Ingram, who introduced the bill in Vermont said it is a “step to right, or at least acknowledge, the many wrongs perpetrated on our Native American brothers & sisters.”

“Vermont was founded and built upon lands whose original inhabitants were the Abenaki people and honors them and their ancestors,” Vermont’s bill says. “The establishment of this holiday will aid in the cultural development of Vermont’s recognized tribes, while enabling all indigenous peoples in Vermont and elsewhere to move forward and formulate positive outcomes, from the history of colonization.”

Note that these Native Americans actually have a proper noun name: Abenaki.

The story in New Mexico was similar.

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed a bill which replaced Columbus Day with Indigenous People’s Day, saying she was “proud” to make the change.

“This new holiday will mark a celebration of New Mexico’s 23 sovereign indigenous nations and the essential place of honor native citizens hold in the fabric of our great state,” she said. “Enacting Indigenous People’s Day sends an important message of reconciliation and will serve as a reminder of our state’s proud native history.”

The odds are that these 23 sovereign indigenous nations actually have proper noun names as well.

Turning momentarily from Columbus’s day to his statues, newly hat-thrown into-the ring presidential candidate Mayor de Blasio said this when statues in New York City became a hot topic:

“We’re trying to unpack 400 years of American history here,” de Blasio told reporters at an unrelated press conference. “This is complicated stuff. But you know, it’s a lot better to be talking about it and trying to work through it than ignoring it.” (“De Blasio, pols clash over historical statues symbolizing hate in NYC” Erin Durkin NEW YORK DAILY NEWS, August 22, 2017)

Sometimes the language can become a little heated to say the least. Consider the following article while the subject of the statue of Columbus in New York was being debated.

Treat Columbus like Weinstein: Topple him
(Michael Henry Adams, NEW YORK DAILY NEWS, December 15, 2017)

Isn’t it ironic that even as bad men like Harvey Weinstein get their names taken off productions, even as Alabamians repudiate Roy Moore, people in New York City — our bastion of liberalism — are refusing to reckon honestly with the terrible deeds of people who’ve been dead for hundreds of years?

Message for Mayor de Blasio’s statues commission, whose final report is due any day now: If we are willing to make pariahs out of people like Matt Lauer and Kevin Spacey, we must not continue to enshrine Christopher Columbus and others who offend our core values.

After allegedly discovering America, Columbus was, for a long time, widely respected — as widely respected as, say, Charlie Rose.

A reawakening followed the widespread recognition that he ruthlessly enslaved indigenous Tainos initially praised for their generosity and gentleness.

Note that here too the indigenous people have an actual proper noun name.

The blog on the New Mexico ditching of Columbus Day was not a simple article of reporting. It mocked Columbus as well.

What is the point of Columbus Day again? Anyone?

Let’s go over brief reacap [sic] of why Americans have spent decades celebrating Christopher Columbus every October:

In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue in search of a Western route to Asia. Instead, he ran into the islands of the Caribbean, but declared that he had, in fact, found the land he was looking for. He said Cuba was China. He thought that Hispaniola was Japan. He maintained these erroneous claims for two entire trips back and forth from Europe.

While he was at it, he also pillaged and tortured the native population of the islands, forced them into slavery, offered them the gift of infectious diseases, and claimed their lands for Spain.

But hey, we need an October holiday. And Columbus was a pretty good sailor, so surely he deserves a national holiday in a country that isn’t even physically part of the land he “discovered,” right?

Come on now.

In the eagerness to mock Columbus, the blogger has failed to address the issue of why Columbus became a revered figure in the first place. It is safe to say that it was not because of any of things mentioned in the blog. Presumably there must have other reasons to explain how this individual, sometimes in the masculine form and sometimes in the feminine form “Columbia” became a symbol of the country, the capital city of the country, the name of cities, and the name of the renamed Kings College that Alexander Hamilton had attended. True this was a blog and not a serious op-ed piece yet alone an historical essay or journal article, but the flippant superficiality expressed in it complicates the challenge of dealing intelligently with a legitimately serious issue.

The blogger was not done with the vituperation.

Seriously, though. Isn’t it time to make this change national?

I can’t think of one good reason why we don’t change the federal holiday of Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day. I know some people have a hard time letting go of tradition, but it’s not like this holiday has been around since our founding. It became a holiday in 1937. It’s not sacrosanct.

And it’s long past time for our country to start atoning for some of what the native people endured at the hands of our government. A holiday acknowledging the contributions of indigenous people and recognizing what they’ve been through would at least by a symbolic gesture of goodwill, especially if it replaces a holiday honoring someone who caused great pain and suffering to native people.

It would be great to see the whole country follow New Mexico in putting the Columbus Day holiday into the historical vault in which it belongs and honor indigenous people instead. It really is the least we can do.  

A close reading of text exposes certain shortcomings in the reporting.

Why did it become a holiday in 1937? It’s not as if Americans suddenly discovered Columbus then.

Why the use of the word “atone”? Why bring a religious dimension to the discussion? Who are the people who are to atone? And who are you to tell those people they need to atone?

The debate over Columbus Day provides an opportunity to discuss a number of serious issues. In practice no such discussion will occur but I intend to write some blogs addressing the issues anyway

1. The use or lack of use of proper names for American Indians.
2. The use and abuse of the terms “native” and “indigenous.”
3. The meaning of Columbus to America in general and Italian-Americans in particular
4. The need of some Americans to call upon other Americans to atone their sins

and then to make some suggestions about what should be done.