Op-Ed: Five Alternative Ways to Observe Columbus Day

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.

11 Comments

  1. “Mildly good” at sailing and “terrible” at navigation? The man made four two-way trips across the unchartered open ocean of the Atlantic aided by little more than a compass, sundial, and hourglass. Samuel Eliot Morison, leader of the Harvard Columbus Expedition, branded Columbus a master navigator – the “greatest of his time.”

    I suggest the author is only “mildly good” at thinking and “terrible” at history.

  2. We should rename Columbus Day in order that it stay relevant to modern day America. I suggest:

    “National Columbus gave Venereal Disease to the Indians Day”

    “National Columbus You Dirty White Male Oppressor Day”

    “National White European Males Suck and it started with Columbus Day”.

    “National Nothing Good ever Came from Europe Day”

    “National Columbus Only Came Here for the Gold and Slavery Day”.

    “Columbus, The Only Undocumented Immigrant who Actually Did Contribute Something Day”

    “National Columbus You Sick Racist Bastard Day”

    “National Columbus We Hate You Day”

    “National Revisionist History Day”

    Cheer up everyone, were it not for Columbus, ultimately there would be no welfare, no affirmative action, no affordable housing for homeless “winners” and none of the other things with which subsequent filthy white males have stained this country.

    • Or how about “National Columbus you idiot you should have anticipated how your actions would be perceived five centuries later by spoiled millennials and adjusted your actions accordingly so you could get more “likes” on your Facebook page Day”

      • Thanks, Galtus,

        You’ve helped me understand why no one likes me.

        I don’t have a Facebook page.

        On it!

  3. Your comment: “The staples of a once-thriving civilization—herds, fertile land, and sacred spaces—were either destroyed or confiscated.”

    The reality: No single civilization existed in the New World at the time of Columbus, with the exception the Mayans, who had disappeared from the American continent hundreds of years before European arrived in America and the Aztecs who conquered their neighbors and used their power to subjugate other native populations.

    There is no period in history of the American continent where peace and prosperity existed among different native cultures. The American continent was populated by hundreds of tribes that spent their productive time at war with their neighbors.

    Your comment that “(b)efore we were the heirs of Washington, Jefferson, and Hamilton, we were the heirs of Christopher Columbus.” is totally correct.

  4. What a wildly idiotic PC garbage article. The ‘godlike’ and peaceful indigenous ‘indians’ of north America were in fact mostly warlike and did a fantastic job of murdering and massacring each other for gain and property before the Westerners showed up and did the same. This new PC definition is almost laughable in its inaccuracy. Columbus at great risk and personal ridicule opened the door for mass exploration and colonization of the country that has saved the world on more than one occasion. But I am sure our native Americans if they continued control of America would have made peace with each other and defeated the Germans twice in the past century…and controlled Russia. Yeah right.

  5. We don’t honor Columbus because he was here first. We honor him be cause he brought western culture here. The indigenous Americans had no written language or number system. Western civilization brought us universities, schools & libraries. More pre-columbian native Americans died from inter tribal massacres than were killed by the white man. Under Native American culture if a baby was born deformed the baby was killed. More native Americans died from famine then died at the hands of post columbian civilization. Columbus brought hospitals and the study of medicine, brought significantly improved agricultural methods, paved roads & the wheel. His discovery brought symphonies and writing music, attention to human rights and developments in hygiene. If one studies the native Americans they were not only not perfect,they were a pretty violent race. Fairy tales & “good guy/bad guy” fantasies are nice but there is a reality concerning human nature that we need to remember.

    • > CONTINUES TO PERPETRATE A FRAUD AGAINST HISTORIANS AND HISTORY

      What? Phony and fraudulent history?

      I’m shocked.

      Has this ever happened before?

  6. “COLUMBUS-THE UNTOLD STORY” by Manuel Rosa — 5-Star review winner from Indie Reader http://indiereader.com/…/learn-truth-discoverer…/

    The clouded genesis of Christopher Columbus can thereby be once and forever resolved. The key to unlocking the Columbus identity mystery was waiting in a place where nobody had ever looked before.

    It is not only your research and attention to detail that has impressed me but your ability to connect and logically present the evidence supporting your theories. – Dr. Lee Spence

    I am a professor of history who specializes in 15th and 16th century Portuguese contacts with west Africa. I do Portuguese paleography, and my research supports your conclusions that Columbus was a Portuguese spy for King John II. – Professor Trevor Hall, – PhD. in History from Johns Hopkins University

    I am so grateful for your outstanding scholarship and dedication. I have been a seaman all my life… You have added much original information for which I am grateful. – Capt. Peter J. Piaseckyj

    Twenty-five years of research have pieced together a stunning array of artifacts and data, complete with DNA test results; one that resulted in the deceitfulness of power, of politics, false identities and false discoveries. – Michele Doucette

    This is the most serious and in depth study I have ever read on the subject (and I have read many…) – Paulo Castro

    Another nutty conspiracy theory! That’s what I first supposed. I now believe that Columbus is guilty of a huge fraud carried out over two decades. – Professor James T. McDonough Jr., St. Joseph’s University.

    I am fascinated by your book! It is the most thoroughly researched book on the topic of the man the world knows as “Christopher Columbus” that I have ever read. – Robert Bilicki

    COLUMBUS-THE UNTOLD STORY ( http://www.Columbus-Book.com ) is a magnum opus and by no means should be considered a work of pseudo history or just another source of nutty conspiracy theories. Rosa’s numerous reliable findings and solid theories would make Sherlock Holmes jealous. The History of Columbus has many mixed-up facts and personalities, and maybe the time has come for the discoverer’s life to be finally rewritten. – Miltiades Varvounis, Greek-Polish historian ( http://www.1492.us.com )

    • LOURENÇO DAMAS,

      How much did SJ Inside charge you for a self-serving advertisement like that?

      Was it their standard quarter-page rate?