Don’t Replace Columbus Day, Expand It

Willard Yellow Bird, cultural planner for the City of Fargo, performs a blessing ceremony Monday, Oct. 12, 2015, at City Square, Fargo, prior to a petition at the City Commission meeting to recognize each second Monday of October as Indigenous Peoples Day. Michael Vosburg / Forum News Service

Last year the City of Fargo chose to replace their municipal recognition of Columbus Day – still a federal holiday – with Indigenous Peoples Day.

Reporter Tu-Uyen Tran writes about the city’s first celebration under the new order. His headlines – “Instead of Columbus Day, Fargo will mark Monday as Indigenous Peoples Day” – illustrates the mistake the city has made.

Note that it’s instead of Columbus Day, not in addition to.

That’s unfortunate. Because history is sprawling and complicated and nuanced and, if we are to commemorate it, deserves something better than this petty political maneuvering.

The enemies of Columbus Day have long rejected the shallow rendering of the European explorer who “discovered” America thus brought civilization to the indigenous savages, and rightly so. That fable is simplistic to the point of being a fiction, and insulting to the pre-Columbian societies in North America. The critics want a more full recognition of the meaning of the Columbus expeditions, particularly from the perspective of those he allegedly “discovered.”

…where the anti-Columbus Day agitators fail is in wanting to replace the history of Columbus and the historical perspective of the European settlers with their own perspective. Why can’t both perspectives be recognized as valid and important?

Which is great! We should all want that.

But where the anti-Columbus Day agitators fail is in wanting to replace the history of Columbus and the historical perspective of the European settlers with their own perspective.

Why can’t both perspectives be recognized as valid and important?

Because while Columbus was certainly a more complicated figure than has been taught to generations of American school kids, his travels were undeniably significant. While it has become fashionable among Columbus critics to sneer at the idea that he “discovered” anything, it is true that he made what amounted to very real discoveries for vast swaths of European society. What he did, from the European perspective, was both brave and significant.

While the perspective of the indigenous people’s is certainly different, that shouldn’t necessarily negate the European perspective. It should, instead, give it context.

Which brings me back to the City of Fargo’s actions. The very existence of a Columbus Day holiday seems a little silly – while the man is a significant historical figure he hardly warrants his own national holiday, I think – and I’d be fine with doing away with it. But I dislike that the holiday and the historical remembrance it is supposed to facilitate should be replaced with something else.

It strikes me as replacing one sort of benighted historical myopia with another.

Those who truly wish to celebrate history should strive to understand all of it, not just those parts they find most politically convenient.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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