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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.