Monday, October 14, 2013

Columbus Day/Native American Day?

Today is Columbus Day, per federal and some state law. It's seen as a chance to acknowledge the efforts and results of Christopher Columbus's search for a new route to the East. It has been celebrated in one way or another for centuries. The national acknowledgement began in the U.S. in 1937.

Part of what helped it flourish was the move to help improve the image of the Italian American community in the U.S. It, like many other immigrant groups to this country had been tarred with stereotypes and derision. Out of that abuse and hate they clung to images that help tie them to the American story. And Columbus nicely did this.

Now, not every state joins in for this. Hawaii celebrates Discoverers' Day, in honor of the Polynesian discovery of the Hawaiian islands, though it is not a legally sanctioned holiday. South Dakota celebrates Native American Day on this day (Other California and Tennessee also have a Native American Day, but in September.), to acknowledge and honor native peoples. And Oregon just stays out of the debate.

What debate?

Well, while most of us went to school and all somehow picked up:
"In 1492, Columbus sailed the oceans blue."
The story and reality of exploration, discovery, and colonization of the Americas proves to be a dark one.

Exploration and colonization have had their positive results, new spaces for people, new foods and resources, expansion of knowledge, and chances to meet and connect with cultures. These can be great and truly monumental periods.

But times of colonization, moving into new lands, taking new resources, and coming in contact with new peoples, can and too often has been allowed to mean DEATH.

Columbus. The Treaty of Tordesillas. The Mayflower. Jamestown. The Homestead Act. The Gold Rushes.

Now let's consider Columbus's trip. (partly from here and here)

  • He did not "discover" the Americas. The native people had long arrived there. And then we have the Vikings. And then there are the questions of others that may have reached the continents. (In fact people are reevaluating how native people arrived, reconsidered if they arrived in staggered groups, and entering at different places.)
  • Columbus came for gold. Route to Asian? Pfft! He pushed the natives he met on the Caribbean Islands for gold, or sources of gold he could go to.
  • Columbus saw the natives as soft touches. "I could conquer the whole of them with fifty men and govern them as I please." And Columbus was interested in governing them.
  • Columbus brought syphilis to the Old World.
  • When he returned, seeking gold, he demanded gold, food, and women for his men. When natives balked, he had them mutilated. And when they fought back, he had a reason to go to war on them. (The Spanish forces even gave captives to their dogs to eat.)
  • When the attacks and threats didn't get him enough gold. He took slaves instead.
  • In the Americas, other natives were kept as slaves to work and feed the Spanish. When many fled into the wilderness to stay free, Columbus's forces hunted them for sport.
  • Then a tribute system was set up. Give the Spanish gold, and you would get a pass. From what? Having your hands cut off and put around your neck.
  • And then there are the sex slaves that were a boon that Columbus would give his men. (Often they were 9-10 year old girls.)
  • Columbus was deemed so brutal and so greedy, he was stripped of power and dragged back to Spain in his later years.
  • And then we could talk about the MILLIONS that rapidly began dying across North and South America as the Spanish, Portuguese, French, English, and Dutch arrived. Civilizations collapsed and died out across TWO continents over less than than a century.


Instead of being aware and learning about this, we make it about some myth. Myths do have their value. But when you let myth blot out real tragedy, you wrong us all.

And I think that is a good point. We need to talk and discuss what happened when Europeans started coming across the Atlantic Ocean in large numbers. The cost. The pain. The impact. Let's rip the lid off of myth and get to the reality. It needs to be real, and unforgotten.

Instead some have suggested celebrating Canadian Thanksgiving today or celebrating another figure, like Bartolome de las Casas. Taking Canadian Thanksgiving means just ignoring the issue, so you can enjoy the day off.  The realities of what happen should exist in our cultural dialogue. And switching figures? Come on.

Let's remember how the "New World" started. And let's beware of everything that was done to build and sustain it.

It's a dark, bloody, nasty, and cruel story at times. Let's not buff out the untidy bits of history. How else can we right things? How else do we learn?

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