Some thoughts on ‘Columbus Day’
I learned it in elementary school in the 1950s: Christopher Columbus discovered America in 1492. He paved the way for European settlement of the Americas and the founding of the United States. He was a hero.
Columbus landed in what we call the Bahamas on Oct. 12, 1492. “Columbus Day” has been recognized in the U.S. since 1971 as a federal holiday on the second Monday of October. For many Americans, the holiday is little more than an inconvenience–no mail delivery! For some, it is a day to celebrate their Italian heritage. But what does it mean for Native Americans?
As a “white” American, I cannot speak for them, but many Natives have spoken of the pain it causes them. For one thing, Columbus did not “discover” America (nor did Leif Erickson or anyone else). As Navajo author Mark Charles says, “You cannot discover lands already inhabited.” The Americas had been inhabited for thousands of years by indigenous peoples with their own cultures and institutions. To say “Columbus discovered America” is to discount their importance and even their existence.
More than that, the European colonization of the Americas led to mass death among the native peoples due to disease, warfare, massacre, slavery and expulsion from their homelands. Most of their lands were taken from them. Treaties and promises were broken time and time again. Oct. 12, 1492, led to an enormous amount of suffering for Native Americans. To commemorate “Columbus Day” insults and ignores our Native American brothers and sisters. (Italian-Americans can celebrate their rich heritage in other ways!)
For this reason, many cities, counties, school boards and other bodies, including at least 13 states, have changed “Columbus Day” to “Indigenous Peoples’ Day” or something similar. In 2019, both Michigan and Wisconsin made the switch. I look forward to the time the federal holiday is changed.
Beyond that, however, here are ways we non-Natives can truly honor the day and our indigenous citizens.
First and foremost, care –about the Native Americans of this land.
Second, learn — about Native American history, cultures, and past and present contributions to American life. This will include facing some painful truths about our country. We do not honor America by perpetuating myths and half-truths such as the “Columbus” narrative. America has done some wonderful things and some terrible things. We can only move forward if we deal honestly with our past and understand how it has brought us to where we are today.
Third, listen — especially by making an effort to listen to Native Americans themselves as they describe their experiences, their values, their needs and the issues they care about. We can “listen” through articles, books, documentaries, movies, conversations, powwows, Native cultural centers and so on.
Fourth, remember — that our homes, businesses, schools, churches, communities, roads, parks, forests, rivers and lakes are all on land once occupied by Native Americans. Be thankful for their good stewardship of this land for thousands of years.
Fifth, celebrate — that despite the tremendous suffering and loss that Native Americans have experienced through the centuries, they have been resilient and strong enough to survive. They persevered and have much to teach us today.
If we do these things, it will help all of us, whatever our racial or ethnic or cultural backgrounds, to live well together in this land that we all love and share.