Native Thoughts: Columbus Day

We live an a pretty polarizing world. Say one thing incorrectly or correctly and 1000 social media tweets go out in defense or attack of those words. Mark Ruffalo, a man who has proven repeatedly to be a supporter of various lifestyles, instigated mass outrage when he cast Matt Bomer in a role of a transsexual woman in his upcoming film. So instead of hiring the best actor to play a role he got slammed for not hiring a lifestyle consistent actor. Jim Gaffigan tweets out “Ladies I hope getting your nails done feels good because not a single man notices you got them done,” in reference of his obliviousness, and gets lambasted with tweets about how sexist he is and how “women do things not to impress a man” comments. Or there is Clorox Bleach who, when Apple’s iOS 8.3 included 300+ new emojis (including a grundle of racially diverse emojis) crafted an emoji Clorox Bottle and then postulated, “Why is there no ‘Bleach’ emoji?” Of course this lead to numerous responses of “Black emojis were released today. Are you saying emojis should be all white?”

What does any of this have to do with Columbus Day? Nothing, except I hope what I write today doesn’t cause too much outrage. But if it does I guess that would mean it sparked a little bit of conversation. And possibly, at this time, that’s the right start for us as a whole.

A couple of years ago I posted on Facebook, “Columbus Day. What a great day for celebrating a man who discovered a land where people were already lived!” I got a response from a friend of mine that said, “Oh, Man. That’s funny and unsettling.” Truth be told, I’m not really an anti-Columbus type of person, but I do find it a little sad when we can put a lesser quality individual high on a pedestal while better, more deserving and suitable people get overlooked.

A Brief Understanding of Columbus

So Columbus is an interesting person. He made four famous voyages to the “New World,” and even though he was not the first European to visit the Americas (thanks Vikings) he was the first to create a lasting bond between Europe and what he believed was India (again … Thanks Vikings). While the reason for his trips was to find a “Western” route to India what he stumbled upon was so much more interesting. First Trip he stayed pretty close to the Bahamas; The second trip he hung out in Cuba and Hispanola; Third, he went to Hispanola and Canary Islands; Fourth trip he ended up in Jamaica and then went to Central America.

As it goes, in 1492 Columbus did sail the ocean blue, but as a celebrated man who deserves a day off of work? Well …

Here Is the Bad News

Columbus was an opportunist. That isn’t a horrible character trait, but he was a greedy opportunist. He first presentation to travel to the new world to the King of Portugal was rejected because he wanted to be called “Great Admiral of the Ocean”, be made Governor of any land he discovered, and given 1/10th of any revenue generated from said lands. Of course this was rejected and while he kept negotiating with various royalty it wasn’t until a revised plan to Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain (after 6 other attempts) that things finally worked out for him. What does this all lead up to?

Columbus wanted more and took more and thought he was more than he actually was. He brought back slaves and he raped, pillaged and plundered, though … possibly not as bad as certain critics have stated (then again is any raping, pillaging and plundering good?). On his second trip he was tasked to colonize Hispanola, where he became governor for a while. But as it turns out putting a person in a high ranking office who is nothing more than an opportunist is a pretty bad idea (Thanks politics!!!). He was a horrible governor who liked to enslave and kill natives. This angered Queen Isabella and she sent for him, removed his title and … well slapped his wrist.

It can be said that he brought European diseases (Syphilis and Small Pox) to the “New World’, or at least he brought sailors who brought diseases (It’s tough to blame it all on Columbus). He was notorious for being a tyrannical captain and treating his crew horribly.  The rumor was he was going insane from disease before he travelled on his final trip, but it could have been Reiter’s syndrome that was manifesting itself. His last trip ended with him being shipwrecked on Jamaica due to really poor management of his crew and bad weather. He spent the last of his days suing Spain for not living up to their end of the bargain he made with them.

So not only was Columbus a horrible person, but he didn’t even discover a “new world” since he would repeatedly mention the land he discovered as East India (That’s the reason why we’re called Indians!). Some inaccurate historians teach that he “proved” the earth was round, but that’s a load of hooey since mathematicians and other cartographers of the same time were debunking that theory on a daily basis. No, the only thing Columbus really did was make it so the European trade routes to America were opened which allowed for the European colonization. Heck, it was Amerigo Vespucci (a much better man) who actually realized this place was not India, but a “New Land,” but Amerigo was such a good person that he get’s repeatedly overlooked in history.

So Why Columbus Day?

This is an interesting question. Imagine you are at the birth of a new nation. You just beat the Imperial armies and you need American heroes. Sure General Washington was around, but you need more. Something to help create enthusiasm for a journey of unknown waters. So John Noble suggests in his book The Mysterious History of Columbus (1991), that Columbus was “the solitary individual who challenged the unknown sea,” just as the U.S. faced an uncertain future. Thus a hero was born. So thanks to the limited understanding and view of the American public and the deification of an individual the government needed we have a holiday handed down year after year celebrating a person who probably shouldn’t have been celebrated in the first place.

So what are the Alternatives?

I mean if we’re considering Native American heroes that we should idolize or at least deify a little, one can never go wrong with Squanto or Pocahontas. It would be really hard to admit that European colonies would have survived without either of these two individuals (Squanto with Massachusetts colony and Pocahontas with Virginia colony). Perhaps we could consider military strategists as a possibility, Like that of Techumseh, Geronimo, or Sitting Bull. Maybe we could celebrate by focusing on the entire First Nations by calling it “First Nations Day,” “Indigenous Day,” or “If it wasn’t for you Damn European’s Day” (Ok … that last one was a little snarky).

Regardless of whatever you want to call it I do believe keeping the tradition of a “Columbus” day is a slap to the face of not only Native Americans but all Americans. Columbus may have had a very impactful accomplishment, but the individual is not someone we should keep idolizing or acknowledging. We live in a current age when we tear down past heroes because of their horrible atrocities, and if we truly wish to be “understanding” of all peoples it would be nice to start being more aware of the “Native” condition. Sure we have the whole “Washington Redskins” argument, but that’s a paltry offering considering many of the atrocities that have happened (and still occur) to the “First Nation’s People.” And while I think it wouldn’t be difficult to transition the day from focusing on the rapist and plunderer, “Christopher Columbus”, to the marvelous director of the Harry Potter, Home Alone and Adventures in Babysitting Movies, “Chris Columbus,” I think it might suit us better to name (or rebrand) it something else instead. For goodness sake if we can have “Civil Rights Day” be changed “Martin Luther King Jr. Day,” which it so aptly deserves, why can’t we change “Columbus Day” into something Everybody deserves?

Final Thoughts and Last Words

All in all, if you put Columbus up to the comparative historical scale of “atrocity” he is pretty bad. I mean we have recently been demeaning Thomas Jefferson for recent findings of sex with slaves and illegitimate children. Columbus not only had sex with slaves, had illegitimate children and killed MANY Native Americans he also ended his life doing nothing but suing the people who gave him the opportunity to be great in the first place. At least Jefferson drafted an amazing document/thumbs up at a oppressive monarchy. Columbus’ gift to America: Syphilis.

So let’s trend #ChangeColumbusDay and see if we can get the conversation started. Who knows … within our lifetime we may start recognizing people who deserve recognition for their actions and not the personal traits they display. Who knows … Maybe those in control of our government may recognize how truly alike we all are and forget these polarizing factions we lean towards. Who knows … maybe a national holiday that emboldens the spirit of America is something that might allow us to treat each other as equals. Heaven knows Mark Ruffalo could use a little help spreading that message around!

Go out and hug yourself a Native American!!

Leave a Reply