Columbus Day? No way

Scott Lucas

When I was growing up, my family celebrated just about every holiday in the book. I love any excuse to throw a party. I tell you this personal anecdote to let you know just how hard it is for me to say the following: We shouldn’t be celebrating Columbus Day Monday. Let’s face it. Christopher Columbus is not a person particularly worth celebrating. The story of the European conquest of the Americas is not something to be proud of. That’s why we should celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day instead. All the fun of a federal holiday without any of the theft, slavery and murder. It’s a good deal. It’s what the city of Berkeley does, and I think they are right to do it.

Indigenous Peoples’ Day recognizes the native cultures of the Americas that often are glossed over in the stories we tell ourselves about our country. And it provides them a chance to tell their stories for themselves to the rest of us. The story of the interaction between Europeans and natives is not so pretty. But, to paraphrase a certain secretary of defense, we live with the history we have, not the history we want.

In Columbus’ case, the history is clear, because he kept detailed logs of his voyages. Take the following about meeting the Arawak in the Bahamas:

“They … brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things, which they exchanged for the glass beads and hawks’ bells. They willingly traded everything they owned. … They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron. Their spears are made of cane. … They would make fine servants. … With 50 men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.”

I don’t claim much experience on these issues, which is why I called up my friend Alan Waxman, who studies anthropology and native cultures at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash., to ask his opinions.

“Indigenous peoples are often not noticed by national holidays because colonialism is not over for them (I wonder sometimes if America is in a constant state of re-colonization),” he said. “Hence, there is a need to bring light to plights of indigenous peoples around the world. However, I think there is a tendency to believe indigenous peoples are no longer around, and that they lie dead 364 days a year in a glass case. Indigenous peoples and their cultures are as vibrant as ever. As I learn more about the spoken, unspoken, and material language of these people, I can come to understand more of the elements of their culture that I come into contact with every day.”

But I imagine a few people have been moved to remark, so what? Who cares about one little holiday? Isn’t there an awfully large group of more important issues? Maybe that’s a fair point. Fair point, but you can’t discount the value of political symbols. The holidays we celebrate as a nation reflect the moral exemplars we hold up: Washington, Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., Santa Claus. I’m a big fan of the last one. We may never live up to the example they are supposed to set for us, but we aspire to be like the people we celebrate. What kind of nation puts somebody like Columbus up on the pedestal?

In fact, Columbus Day may have once played a positive role in crafting a national narrative. Though the first recorded celebration was in 1792, it wasn’t until the late 1860s that Italian-American communities began to celebrate what we now recognize as Columbus Day. That coincides with the rise of anti-Italian racism by other Americans. I suspect, though I can’t prove, that the holiday was originally a way to claim a place in the American narrative for Italian immigrants. And I’m not so sure that’s a bad idea at all.

But it is unfortunately all too common that the price of one group’s inclusion is another group’s exclusion. How can we refashion our celebrations to better reflect the sort of political community we would chose to be? I think changing this holiday is a step in the correct direction we ought to take on the national level as well as in our city. And if it’s not too much trouble, let’s throw in a few more holidays just for good measure. I’m open to suggestions.

The above column, by Scott Lucas appeared in the Daily Bruin (UCLA) yesterday.