Oct 13, 2014

Columbus Day Revisited

By Tom Blakeley
Today is Columbus Day, a holiday at my kids' school and my wife's work. It is allegedly the day in 1492 that Christopher Columbus "arrived" in the Americas, discovered this great and glorious land we call our own. Early this morning, though, I read on the CNN news website that many Americans don't celebrate Columbus Day anymore. Was this another holiday destined to die in the face of political correctness? I decided to investigate further.

I myself am not on vacation today, since my employer does not include Columbus Day in the list of office holidays. Regardless, when I came into work in downtown Houston, we did have "happy Columbus Day" posters in the lobby of my building and in the break room. All this got me thinking: why do some people celebrate this holiday and others don't? Should we even care what happened in 1492? To get a sense of my fellow Americans' sentiments about this holiday - and the man Columbus - I decided to take an informal survey of some of my colleagues. What I learned about Columbus and the "celebration" surrounding it was informative and thought provoking.
First here are some facts about Columbus Day and the man who we honor:
  • Columbus Day is celebrated not only in the United States but also in other countries, such as the Bahamas, Spain, Argentina, Belize, Uruguay and Italy.
  • although people have celebrated this holiday informally since colonial times, it officially became a U.S. federal holiday in 1937.
  • Many states such as Hawaii, Alaska, Oregon and South Dakota do not celebrate Columbus Day in any form. Others recognize it but do not officially close federal offices.
So why did CNN report about the non-observance of Columbus Day? Why do Americans prefer to protest a seemingly patriotic holiday? When I asked my colleagues at work, they gave varying responses about Christopher Columbus. Two did not know who Columbus was, six had heard of him but wasn't sure what he did to get an entire day named after him, and one colleague glared at me when I mentioned his name. This young man - name withheld upon request - is of Native American origin, a fact that I did not know until now. I am ashamed to say that I had always thought he was Mexican, but I learned during the conversation today that he used to live on an Indian reservation in Nevada and came to Houston ten years ago. His thoughts about Christopher Columbus were quite enlightening, and even though they may be biased, I feel that they are an accurate representation of the Native American narrative.
My new friend explained to me the true meaning behind Columbus' arrival on the shores of this continent so long ago. To the indigenous people of this land, it meant not discovery and enlightenment, but slavery and death. Columbus' arrival heralded a new time for the natives: one when white men would form a steady stream into their lands to take away their possessions and kill their people. My friend referred me to an article about the true legacy of Columbus, which I am printing here: http://www.hartford-hwp.com/Taino/docs/columbus.html
The last paragraph of the article is of special impact, and I think it bears repeating here for those who may not feel the urge to visit the website itself. After reading it, and the rest of the article, I realized why so many Americans of different ethnicities and backgrounds refuse to celebrate Columbus Day. The author writes, after explaining the reason's for Columbus' travels and the fact that he went back with more than thousand slaves and opened up the route for a constant slave trade as well as eventual colonization:
"This was the great cultural encounter initiated by Christopher Columbus. This is the event we celebrate each year on Columbus Day. The United States honors only two men with federal holidays bearing their names. In January we commemorate the birth of Martin Luther King, Jr., who struggled to lift the blinders of racial prejudice and to cut the remaining bonds of slavery in America. In October, we honor Christopher Columbus, who opened the Atlantic slave trade and launched one of the greatest waves of genocide known in history."
I must say that I am saddened by this account, and also understand much better why many people, and many cities across America have begun celebrating today as "indigenous people's day" instead of Columbus Day. The name may be longer and more cumbersome, but it's the least we can do to change the narrative and accept our historical roots. Only then can we improve ourselves and look to a brighter future.
Tom Blakeley is an accountant in a Houston firm and an avid reader of cultural fiction. In his spare time he likes to participate in an interfaith music group in his neighborhood. The views expressed in this post are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Interfaith Houston.   

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