Indigenous People's Day should stand for more than replacing Columbus Day sales
I have never celebrated Columbus Day, nor do I know anybody who does. Heck, I do not even know how one would celebrate it.
Though my 10 years of working in tribal government gives me an academic understanding and working knowledge of the issues in Native communities that many folks do not have, my relative privilege as a fair-skinned Mexican with a Polish name makes me uncomfortable claiming some kind of solidarity with Indigenous people, so I will spare readers any such pretense, despite my sympathies. This said, the holiday has always seemed hollow to me at best, merely an excuse to have a Monday off and a sale on washers.
The truth is, even as a kid, well before I knew much more than the coloring-book version of Columbus, he seemed boring to me. In retrospect, this may have been the intentional result of myth-making.
There was a time in this country when the Italian hero was General Giuseppe Garibaldi. The revolutionary and "Father of Italy" was an icon for what could best be called the American Left in the years leading up to the Civil War. During the war, the general's example inspired the raising of a New York volunteer regiment dubbed the "Garibaldi Guard" which consisted of immigrants from Latin America and continental Europe, including a company of Italians. Garibaldi himself turned down an offer for a commission in the Union Army, criticizing Lincoln for his initial timidity on the abolition of slavery.
Garibaldi briefly lived in New York in the 1850s, so the exact reasons why Columbus, who never set foot in what is now the continental United States, rather than the general became the chief idol of the Italian-American community is unclear.
It may simply have been Garibaldi's association with ideas like socialism and anti-clericalism which are still considered controversial a century and a half later. The fact that many Italian immigrants in the mid-to-late 19th century came to America because of the unrest and radical changes brought on by Garibaldi might have had motivated the community to embrace an ostensibly politically neutral figure.
By the 1870s, Italian immigrant communities in larger American cities embraced Columbus as a way of claiming a little piece of American history and began to observe "Columbus Day" with parades.
Columbus Day was proclaimed by President Benjamin Harrison in 1892, the 400th anniversary of the Genovese mariner's first expedition, in response to violence against Italian immigrants, and over the next few decades, it received official sanction in cities and states around the country. This was not without controversy, as the new holiday met with resistance from nativist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan, who objected to the acknowledgement of America's Catholic past.
This said, it should be noted that the Columbus that was being enshrined into the American pantheon was a bit of a cypher that had little to do with the historical figure was. Bullshit stories about his supposed upbringing as a weaver's son attempted to bring his story more in line with Horatio Alger mythology. The stories of his unsuccessfully trying to sell European monarchs on the notion of a round Earth were bunk as well, since the idea was generally accepted by educated people. He would not have even called himself Italian, since Italy did not yet exist as a nation.
Of course, this is to say nothing of the fact that the land he "discovered" was a fully populated continent of tens of millions, some of whom lived in cities that dwarfed the capitols of Europe.
The elevation of Columbus, it could be argued, was an attempt to legitimize the presence of one oppressed group by writing another out of our history.
Of Columbus' own story, little seemed to matter other than that he sailed west from Europe and landed somewhere, and everything else followed. How this figured into the larger, and much more important story of a newly unified Spain, the European conquest of the Americas, and the legacy of colonialism in general, was not really considered.
President Harrison's proclamation of Columbus Day happened in a time when assimilationist federal policies toward Native Americans were expanding with the end of armed conflict.
This was the beginning of decades of sometimes brutal measures aimed at dissolving tribal governments and erasing Native identity with the goal of turning Indians into someone else's idea of regular Americans. Suffice it to say, these policies did not, and could not, succeed for a number of reasons, though they have an ugly legacy.
Congress made Columbus Day an official federal holiday in 1966. Things by this time had changed considerably. The Department of Interior under Arizona's own Stewart Udall had abandoned the previous policy of "termination," choosing instead to pursue a policy of expanding tribal self-governance. This happened as activism was blossoming in the Native community, culminating in the organization of the American Indian Movement and the mainstream popularity of writers like Vine Deloria.
With this growing consciousness, many Americans began to question Columbus and his legacy.
This led to some backlash among some conservatives. Notably, Franco devotee and Columbus enthusiast William F. Buckley Jr. believed that the Genovese's accomplishments as a sailor merited his hero status and dismissed detractors as revisionists. Of course, the truth is that Columbus was controversial in his own time, having been ignominiously returned to Spain in chains after mismanaging the colony at La Navidad and making unreasonable demands for titles.
The brutal treatment of the Natives by Columbus and the initial generation of colonists who followed him was famously criticized by renegade Dominican priest Bartolomé de las Casas, whose writings inspired reform as he championed the rights of Indians in the 16th century. The "revisionism" that Buckley cited actually occurred decades earlier, when Columbus was rendered safe for American consumption.
We have been hearing a lot lately about this notion of revisionism from conservatives as protests about statues of Confederate leaders have led us as a country to rethink the mixed legacies of a long list of icons.
Echoing Buckley whether they know it or not, they have generally assumed the pretense that this re-evaluation is without precedent, as admitting that our historical idols were less than perfect is also an admission that the supposed consensus about who we are as a country which existed before liberals supposedly ruined everything in the 1960s never actually existed.
We have always had controversies and debates about how to move forward, and the people we have elevated as heroes were always imperfect as people. Perhaps it is time instead to re-think the notion of heroes in our historical narratives.
As for Columbus Day, I remain not a fan.
Replacing it with Indigenous People's Day, which is slowly happening around the country, seems appropriate, though it is hoped that this does not become, as Martin Luther King Day too often does, an excuse to put a little bit of spackle on the past and otherwise just a day off from work, but instead inspires some real discussion of the legacy of our colonial heritage and maybe some consideration of the real problems of health care, economic development and housing in Native communities and the work we all need to do as a country to address these.
Maybe this will be more meaningful than a sale on appliances and a day without mail.