It wasn’t long ago—relative to the age of the universe—that Christopher Columbus defied the horizon and set off in search of a passage East. As we’ve learned in the dominant, perpetuated myth about this series of events, he accidentally discovered a new continent. Ever the salesman, mildly good at sailing and terrible at navigation, he convinced his fellow sailors they were in India and misidentified the exotic people he encountered with a misnomer that sticks to this day.
Columbus’ return to Europe heralded a great discovery that set off a wild fury of exploration, exploitation, and imperialism. The “New World,” never-mind that it had been inhabited by humans for over 10,000 years, became a plucking ground for riches, resources, and renown. Europeans that followed Columbus’ expedition brought with them diseases and conquest that ravaged the indigenous peoples of what would later be named “Americas.”
Over the next 500 years, this America would grow to be the richest, most powerful nation on Earth. This America would become the shining beacon of hope for the world. This America has become a successful experiment in democracy, liberty, multiculturalism, opportunity, technology, and generosity. Americans fought, sacrificing lives and riches, for the protection of these ideals around the world.
Before we were the heirs of Washington, Jefferson, and Hamilton, we were the heirs of Christopher Columbus.
Over the next 500 years, this America also built upon the atrocities pioneered by Columbus. The precedent for exploiting the indigenous people of the Americas was repeated over and over again. Land was taken. Riches were appropriated. The staples of a once-thriving civilization—herds, fertile land, and sacred spaces—were either destroyed or confiscated. The heirs of Columbus, now calling themselves Americans, enslaved, murdered, and marginalized whole groups of people in their march toward becoming this shining beacon of hope for the world.
America cannot celebrate Columbus for the former without rightly acknowledging other appropriate celebrations alongside Columbus Day. Here is a list of five alternative observances that can be paired with celebrations of Columbus’ legacy.
National Monday off Day: Let’s be honest. The more distantly past and personally disconnected we are from an event or celebration, the more space there is to re-interpret it. In many ways, Columbus Day is as special as a national “day off” as it is a specific celebration of Columbus’ important place in our history. We have a few of these federally prescribed holidays each year. Governments and banks close to provide a welcome respite from toil and labor. While on the surface it may seem a cynical approach to a holiday, it foils nicely with Labor Day, which occurs a month earlier, and in a rather postmodern, 21st century way, celebrates the idea of celebration itself.
Myths and Legends Day: The story of Columbus being the first European—as was taught to us in fifth grade history—has value, not in its verifiable fact, but in what it stands for. Likewise, the notion that all people thought the world was flat is equally laughable as a statement of “fact.” European Christianity taming savages? Such myths and legends around Columbus’ voyages do stand as symbols of a new era of exploration, discovery, and experimentation that highlight Europe’s emergence from the Middle Ages. Rather than discount the value of these events based on the verifiable “facts” uncovered by recent historians, we can acknowledge that we need myths and legends to coalesce around to better understand the “stories” of us.
Indigenous People’s Day: This is a fitting pair to Columbus Day and has actually been adopted as a holiday—called “Native American Day” or “First Peoples’ Day” by many cities, states, provinces, and countries around the world. The number of municipalities embracing this day is growing rapidly. First designed as a protest fueled by the modern historical reassessments of Columbus’ legacy, it can also be a day of atonement for the deplorable actions of Americans who—in their quest to control the full continent—mistreated Native American nations, decimating their cultures and sovereignty. We could also treat it as a positive celebration of the rich cultures and enduring legacies of the continent’s first citizens. Further, it can be a day to reflect on the effects of such remarkable Native Americans as Black Kettle, Osceola and Buffalo Bird Woman.
Immigrants Day: Celebrations of Columbus’s “discovery” of America took place as far back as 1792. The history of Columbus Day as a national holiday has its roots in immigrant communities who were—during the late 1800s—poorly treated, mostly because of their Catholic faith, but also because they looked and sounded different. Eventually these groups would gain acceptance and be subsumed into the mainstream culture of America’s melting pot—or salad bowl, if you prefer. Even today, as different immigrant populations from new and exotic parts of the world arrive on the shores of our nation, as they seek asylum or freedom or riches, a reminder that we are a nation of immigrants wouldn’t hurt. Like many other minority groups throughout American history, visibility is a first step toward understanding and integration. Such a holiday would be a perfect reflection that, at some point in our lineage, we are all immigrants.
American Atonement Day: Americans set aside a full day to give thanks for all of the bounties that have been heaped upon us. Thanksgiving is as necessary and culturally-ingrained a holiday as Independence Day. We rightly observe Thanksgiving as a secular celebration of something beyond us and before us that we should celebrate with gratitude. Built, still, upon myths and legends and how we’d like to view ourselves in the prism of our collective history, Thanksgiving reflects upon a passivity that led to our success as a nation. A national day of atonement—An American Yom Kippur—would be a well-placed point from which to view those regrettable things we, as a nation did, even as we were being blessed in other ways. Quite aside from dwelling upon slavery as a national horror, quite aside from dwelling on our historical treatment of Native Americans, immigrants, gays, Catholics, Muslims, the poor, the disabled, and other groups that have not fully realized the bounties for which we can give thanks, we can dwell on how we may have fallen short—on an individual as well as collective level—of “earning” our pieces of the gifts of America’s potential. Were we to dwell upon these things every day, we would be paralyzed in grief. Setting aside a day for reflection on how we have failed, even as we have achieved so much as a lead-up to Thanksgiving would be a timely and sanguine preparation for the holiday season.
Columbus Day is no less relevant today as it was 200 years ago. It has accumulated more meaning and, when paired with these additional reflections, gives Americans a greater and broader view of who we are: worth celebrating, worth grieving, worth accepting that we still have much more to discover.
Jason Leclerc is a poet (PoetEconomist.Blogspot.com), blogger (SemioticArbitrage.blogspot.com), filmmaker (FLAG, 2018), and political columnist (Watermark Magazine). Click here to learn more about his new book, Black Kettle. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of San Jose Inside.