Monday, October 8, 2012

Screw Columbus—Let’s Celebrate the People Who Were Already Here

Note:  Re-posted from last year Federal Holiday which shall remain nameless.

Today is the Federal Holiday honoring Christopher Columbus, the alleged discover of the Americas.  It was moved from its traditional date, October 12, the anniversary of his first landfall on the island of San Salvador in 1492 to make way for a possible three day week-end for the few people who get the day off or possibly to extend the giant mattress sales that seem to have become one of the most visible traditions of the holiday.

The trouble is, Columbus has been falling out of favor for some time, except among the Italians who used his suspected Italian roots to claim their spot at the American table.  The Columbus Day parades in the big cities are less about the Navigator—an ironic title for someone who didn’t know where the hell he was—and more about, as an Italian friend once put it, Gumba Pride.

That worked as long as the Columbus story as told in 19th Century school primers.  But those damn historians insisted on poking around.  Lo and behold it turns out Columbus was not a very nice man.  In fact when King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella rewarded him for his voyages with the title of Admiral of the Ocean Sea and the job of Viceroy to rule the new lands, he was so brutal, venal, and corrupt that the Catholic Priests sent to save the souls of the natives petitioned their Majesties to have him removed.  So did various adventurers and would-be Conquistadores who he slapped in irons for horning in on his exclusive franchise.

In the end he was stripped of his titles and slapped in irons himself.

One of the offenses with which he was charged was virtually wiping out the Carib nation which populated most of the islands of the Caribbean by turning them into slaves.  Within ten years the once numerous people were gone and the Spanish had to replace them by buying Black Africans from Arab dealers.  

By the 1960’s Native peoples in both North and South America were protesting celebrations of Columbus and demanding that the people who where is victims should be the honorees, not the thief.

In 1977 at a United Nations sponsored International Conference on Discrimination Against Indigenous Populations in the Americas held in Geneva, Switzerland the idea of replacing Columbus Day celebrations with a day honoring Indigenous Peoples was first proposed.  As the 500 year anniversary of the “Discovery” approached, Native delegates to a conference held in Quito, Ecuador in 1990 determined to plan protests and demand recognition.  “Nobody discovered us,” they asserted, “We knew where we were.”

Native groups in California were among the most vocal and organized in the protests in 1992. They persuaded the city of Berkley to become the first to rename the holiday locally to the Day of Solidarity with Indigenous People, better known as Indigenous Peoples Day.  The movement spread across the state.  Although only two other cities followed Berkley’s lead in officially adopting the name for the local holiday, school systems, libraries, and colleges began holding alternative events.  And activists began marching and sometimes disrupting official Columbus Day celebration.

South Dakota, with a large Tribal population, became the first state to jettison Columbus and adopt what they call Native American Day.  That name is also used by several Oklahoma based tribes.  Hawaii replaced Columbus Day with Discoverer’s Day, commemorating the Polynesian discoverers of the Islands.  

Several cities, including Columbus, Ohio have simply dropped the holiday entirely and canceled the traditional parades.  In San Francisco, with its large Italian community axed Columbus and simply declared the day Italian Heritage Day instead.

The Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) has officially endorsed the switch to Indigenous Peoples Day and has promoted a number of activities and educational programs which members Congregations can use.

So far Congress has ignored calls to make a change on the Federal level.

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