Today, we celebrate Columbus Day. This American federal holiday is more than a day off, but a remembrance of the exploits of Christopher Columbus.
Apparently though, many U.S. cities and states are ditching this holiday to celebrate Indigenous People’s Day. It’s not a consumer-driven holiday like National Waffle Day, but an effort to rebrand this holiday to shift the focus from the Italian explorer to those people he “conquered” or who occupied the lands he discovered.
The state of Vermont and U.S. cities like Seattle, Phoenix have joined at least a dozen other communities in passing measures designating the second Monday in October as Indigenous Peoples Day. As we learn:
"Indigenous Peoples Day represents a shift in consciousness," said Dr. Leo Killsback, a citizen of the Northern Cheyenne Nation and assistant professor of American Indian Studies at Arizona State University.
"It acknowledges that indigenous peoples and their voices are important in today's conversations."
History has worn the shine off of Columbus and instead of a brave explorer, he’s now painted as a murder and rapist who never really discovered America because he wasn’t the first European to reach the “New World.” He enslaved natives in the Caribbean, open the door to European settlement of North America and the Caribbean, and paved the way for the European slave trade.
Beyond just political correctness, we’re seeing he application of current social norms and practices to the past in an unequal and unfair criticism of what should’ve have been done or how it should have been accomplished.
It’s easy with hindsight to criticize the practices of Columbus and other explorers as not aligning with current human rights conventions while ignoring the immense exploits that they accomplished. We can fly from anywhere on the East Coast to the Caribbean islands in a matter of hours, but explorers risked months (if not years) of treacherous sailing into the unknown for the prospect of the financial gain by discovering what the known world had yet to see, taste or experience.
Celebrating Columbus doesn’t have to take away from the Indigenous People who lived in the Americas. We can acknowledge both and I say that as someone whose descended from Carib Indians and other Indigenous People (among my other ancestors).
I was born on Montserrat, a tiny island (about 40 square miles) in the Caribbean. Christopher Columbus sighted and named my island in 1493 during one of his travels. Because of our island’s lush green volcanic hills, he named us after a monestary in Spain. It took another over 150 years for Montserrat to be colonized though by persecuted Irish Catholics from nearby islands. Slavery started not too long after that and the slave population eventually far surpassed the white settlers on the island. The slaves revolted and eventually slavery was abolished in 1834 – almost a generation before slavery ended in the U.S.
I’m glad Columbus spotted my island and that it was eventually colonized. Slavery is a dark spot on our history, but it led to the unique development of the Caribbean. Today, we enjoy a rich blend of traditions that reflects strong Irish influences (from our surnames to our celebration of St. Patrick’s Day) along with African-inspired dishes and practices.
History is not pretty and that’s a lesson to teach our children. Scrubbing history to remove the wrongs from our collective memory is dangerous. How else can we avoid repeating the wrongs from our past if we ignore what happened? We also learn about who we are today from our history.
We also must celebrate victories and exploits. They inspire future generations to achieve what has never been possible.
So, Happy Christopher Columbus Day!