1972: Circumnavigating Columbus

By Carly Priest

 

If you can, fill in the blank of this phrase: “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ____________.” Did you just automatically chant the words “ocean blue”? If so, you’re not alone— I did too.

        This Monday, October 9, 2017 is the national holiday formally designated as “Columbus Day.” What does Columbus Day even celebrate? After I asked a handful of people on the Hill and spent about twelve minutes researching, my musings confirmed what I already knew as a product of the United States educational system: the federal government designates the second Monday of October as “Columbus Day” to celebrate the discovery of North America by Christopher Columbus.

        How can one person “discover” a place if someone else already lives there? That seems akin to me waltzing into the center of Worcester, sticking a flag with Michelle Obama’s likeness on it and declaring to the people around me that I “discovered a new land for my queen.” I’ll admit I sound facetious, but replace some key players—Obama with Queen Isabella of Spain and myself with Columbus— add in munitions and foreign disease for which there was no immunization, and the comparison sticks. That is what happened.

        To say “Christopher Columbus discovered America” is to paint a false portrait of this North American land that Europeans invaded and claimed through imperial force. Such pictorial understanding of history eliminates the rightful claim to North America by indigenous people, and allows Euro-American descendants to extract a sense of ownership over land that was never “theirs” to begin with. Christopher Columbus did not discover North America— how could he? People had already lived on the continent for centuries, cultivated lands, raised families, and established traditions. North America was never free for taking, and yet, “we” took.

        I’m less concerned with the opinions of those who will write this piece off as an overreaction, and more attune to those who, although not exactly “comfortable” with the idea of Columbus Day also believe that whatever occurred in 1492-onwards did so between the invaders and indigenous of “the past.” It is to them I write now, and set two considerations forth.

First, if we may distill total history down to one observation, it must be that the past concretely and formatively shapes the present. The Eurocentric ideology that permitted borders to be constructed on completely arbitrary lines— drawn in the sand by buckshot conquistadors and missionaries with wild egos and errant “white man’s burden” philosophies— remains the root of all atrocities still committed against the indigenous populations worldwide. For it is only with this past-shaping-present understanding of arbitrary European claim to land that we may begin to consider massacre of the Pequot in Mystic, Connecticut, the Trail of Tears, and the genocidal impact of federally-mandated “assimilation” schools for Native American children;   Mount Rushmore as graffiti on “Paha Sapa” mountains sacred (and “seen from a distance”)[1]for the Lakota Nation; the continued debate over whether mascots like the “Blackhawks,” “Bravehearts,” “Chiefs,” and “Redskins” are acceptable, and rampant cultural appropriation (headdresses at concert festivals, anyone?) for what they are: atrocities.

For, until we view the persecution of indigenous Americans— the centuries of forced removals and injunctions against as responsible for the decimation of indigenous American livelihood and population, we cannot begin to speak of the continuation of these injustices faced by indigenous persons today.  Until we dismantle “Columbus Day,” we cannot fully denounce the weight of the Dakota Pipeline, or the staggering disparity between national rates and reservation rates in unemployment,  suicide attempts, and alcoholism, and absent opportunities for education parity.

Now onto my second point— Columbus Day (as it is celebrated today) does not even offer an enduring feature of mainstream cultural practice in the United States. Columbus Day was not a federally-designated holiday until President Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared it so in 1937.[2] As the History Channel notes, FDR declared “Columbus Day a national holiday, largely as a result of intense lobbying by the Knights of Columbus, an influential Catholic fraternal benefits organization.”[3] Incredibly, standardized celebration of Columbus Day as the second Monday of October did not occur until 1971.[4]  

What’s more, Columbus landed in the Bahamas in 1492, not Plymouth Rock.[5] He wasn’t even the first European to “discover” North America— many contemporary scholars suggest the Viking Leif Erikson, Columbus’ Nordic predecessor of about 500 years, may have landed in North America during the eleventh century, well before the Santa María, the Pinta, and the Niña ever set sail.[6][7]

I’m all for national holidays (I was born on Flag Day; It’s in my nature), but Columbus Day remains an exception. We must address the origin of Columbus Day— not as a day that looks to celebrate the history of the United States, and the contributions of the many Catholic-Italian-Americans that made and make this land great, but one of virulent pseudo-nationalism that selectively excludes the very narratives of those who were robbed of livelihood and land.  This Monday, October 9, I challenge you to consider the pejorative implications of complicit neutrality head-on and instead celebrate, as I will, Indigenous Peoples Day.

       

       

[1] Russell Means, “Kȟe Sapa and Paha Sapa – Russell Means’ response to David Swallow” Republic of Lakota, July 29th, 2009 (accessed October 1st, 2017), http://www.republicoflakotah.com/2009/k%C8%9Fe-sapa-and-paha-sapa-russell-means-response-to-david-swallow/.

[2] “Columbus Day” The History Channel, A&E Networks, 2010 (accessed October 1st, 2017), http://www.history.com/topics/exploration/columbus-day.

[3] “Columbus Day” The History Channel, A&E Networks, 2010 (accessed October 1st, 2017), http://www.history.com/topics/exploration/columbus-day.

[4]“Columbus Day” The History Channel, A&E Networks, 2010 (accessed October 1st, 2017), http://www.history.com/topics/exploration/columbus-day.

[5] “Columbus Lands in South America,” The History Channel, A&E Networks, 2010 (accessed October 1st, 2017), http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/columbus-lands-in-south-america.

[6] “Leif Erikson (11th century)” BBC History (accessed October 1st, 2017), http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/erikson_leif.shtml.

[7] “Columbus Lands in South America,” The History Channel, A&E Networks, 2010 (accessed October 1st, 2017), http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/columbus-lands-in-south-america.

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