Today is either Columbus Day, or Indigenous Peoples’ Day, or just old Monday, depending on which calendar you read, and which politics you happen to embrace.
Should I explain that? Probably not. Probably nobody in North America doesn’t get it. But, just on the off chance…
October 11 has been celebrated for a very long time here in the U.S. of A., as “Columbus Day,” the day when the Great Hero and Explorer Christopher Columbus Sailed The Ocean Blue In 1492 to Discover America. It was a very big deal when I was growing up in New Mexico, which had a large Hispanic population for many of whom Christopher was a hero…even though the man himself was an Italian. But, never mind. He was working on contract for Spanish (okay, Castilian and Aragonese) monarchs, so, by extension…
But, then, later…and particularly in recent years…that all changed. All of a sudden, people noticed that Native Americans had already “discovered” it way back when they splashed across the Bering Strait a good 20,000 years ago. Also there was the little issue that Columbus wasn’t exactly woke. He engaged in slaving and good stuff like that. And, really, he only got here by accident. He was, after all, looking for Asia.
Then, finally, there is the little issue of the fact that the result of Columbus’ “Discovery” of the New World was a genocide of apocalyptic proportions. It’s been estimated that between 80 and 90% of the Native American population died out not long after first contact—due, by the way, to Jared Diamond’s dark triad of “Guns, Germs, and Steel.” That means that as many as 50 million people died in a very short time, and in quite horrible ways.
So, in the last few decades, Columbus has been joined up with Hitler, Stalin, King Leopold II of Belgium, and such-like awful human beings who have done so much, and labored so well, to discredit the whole concept of the White Male. Thus, some communities have decided to do away with the concept of Columbus Day and have a “Indigenous Peoples’ Day” instead. Which I guess I can understand, and probably support.
But, nothing stays constant. If Columbus went from Noble Explorer to Psychopath in a single generation, so, too, have revisionists appeared over the last few years. These people may not care very much Columbus himself, but they also don’t get all warm and fuzzy with the criticisms being leveled against him. They note, for instance, that most of the dying that followed European contact resulted from the Germs side of the equation, with the Guns and Steel playing distinctly minor roles until quite late in the process.
What had happened, of course, was that the Americas had been isolated from European and African disease pools for thousands of years, and therefore had no defenses against everything from Smallpox to Measles. It wasn’t, then, Columbus’ fault that he and other Europeans brought pestilence when they came. In fact, eventually, with Chris or without him, the nightmare was coming. It was only a question of time and of which plague ship first washed up on American shores.
(Oh, and btw, people from Europe, and Asia, and probably Africa had been coming to the Americans for centuries before Columbus. Think Vikings and Polynesians, to name just two. Apparently, they didn’t bring diseases with them because travel times were so much longer before the development of modern sailing techniques. By the time a Viking long boat, or whatever, had gotten to Vinland, or wherever, any active cases of pox or plague on board would have had burned themselves out and the victims tossed over the side. Or, anyway, that’s what I’ve been told.)
So, from that perspective, Columbus was simply (as I’ve heard it put) “the agent of the inevitable.” And, therefore, it is possible to dislike the man himself, but you have to admit he was no Adolf Eichmann either. At worst, he was like the sitcom character who stands, staring and amazed, at the disaster unfolding around him, and says, hesitantly, “Did I do that?”
And besides, goes the argument, if first contact between the Americas and Europe proved horrific, still, well, Columbus’ own accomplishment remained remarkable. He did manage to do something that many people at the time considered impossible—i.e., cross the entire north Atlantic in ships which today would be considered tiny. His crews were always on the verge of mutiny. And he really did sail in waters in which no European ship had gone before. So, continues the argument, he should be credited with his triumph.
How do I feel about it? I guess I really don’t have an opinion, or at least not a strong one. I will admit that I don’t really feel comfortable presenting the good Captain as an unvarnished hero. I would feel rather more comfortable, therefore, celebrating an Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
But, on the other hand, I am also not entirely comfortable with displacing Columbus Day with another holiday. Frankly, that’s because it looks a bit like Virtue Signaling to me. It doesn’t look like we’re really saying, “Let us honor amazing peoples who were nearly wiped off the face of the planet.” It seems more like we’re saying, “Look! Look! See? We’re not the bad, nasty descendants of imperialists. We’re the Good Guys.”
Except maybe we…or they…aren’t the good guys. Or aren’t entirely the good guys and gals. How can you know for sure?
So, maybe, instead, we could let Columbus Day stay on the calendar page, but just not make a big deal about it any longer. Let it just sort of fade away. It’s happened to a lot of holidays before. When was the last time you celebrated Arbor Day? Or VE Day?
And then pick another date…maybe October 1? Or something else? And make that a Remembrance Day for the 50+ million who died. Let that be a day which truly belongs to the Indian peoples. Let it not be a rejection of one lone European explorer, and let it be instead a memory of the lives of all those who perished of disease or war. Let us celebrate their magnificent cultures and genuinely great contributions to the life of the world. (Think just of Native American agriculture. What would our cuisines be without tomatoes and corn and peppers and potatoes and so many other things?)
Let us further make it a day upon which we will all pledge to heal the wounds of the post-colonial traumas. To deal with poverty and want and pain.
And most of all…
To make certain that nothing like it, at least within our abilities…
Ever happens again.
Until next time…
Onward and Upward.
Copyright©2021 Michael Jay Tucker