When It Comes to Columbus Day, We Can’t Add Through Subtraction

Courtney Davis Souvannasacd and her niece, Niska Kempenich, speak in support of a resolution that would replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day at the Grand Forks City Council on Monday. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

“As another example of the liberal cesspool the city of Grand Forks is becoming, the Committee of the Whole voted unanimously last night to replace Christopher Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day,” a reader emailed me today, asking me to write about it. “I am floored.”

He’s right. “City Council members, acting as the city’s Committee of the Whole, on Monday unanimously approved a resolution that would replace the holiday named after the notorious sailor with ‘Indigenous Peoples Day.’ The resolution will head to the council proper at its meeting on Monday, July 15,” the Grand Forks Herald reported today.

It’s kind of hard to get too worked up about the demise of Columbus Day because, let’s face it, how many people even get that day off from work? How many people are using the occasion to think about legacy of Christopher Columbus, or the history of Italian-Americans people generally? Maybe it’s because we live in a part of the world where there aren’t all that many people of Italian descent, but I’m not sure Columbus Day was all that meaningful a holiday to begin with.

Still, the optics of replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day are not good. It’s a political move – retribution, as many see it – and rarely are we doing good when we manipulate history for the sake of politics.

Our nation has not done a good job when it comes to honoring and preserving the history of Native Americans. Our treatment of them has ranged from indifference to caricature to active attempts at annihilation. That is a black mark on the soul of our nation. We can do better, and I’m not opposed to Indigenous Peoples Day as a part of that effort.

Our nation has not done a good job when it comes to honoring and preserving the history of Native Americans. Our treatment of them has ranged from indifference to caricature to active attempts at annihilation. That is a black mark on the soul of our nation. We can do better, and I’m not opposed to Indigenous Peoples Day as a part of that effort.

But why does it have to come at the expense of the history of Columbus? That history is fraught, and complicated, no doubt. From the European perspective Columbus was a great explorer, opening up vast new lands for settlement and commerce. From the perspective of Native Americans, his great “discovery” was no discovery at all but rather the dawn of centuries worth of disease, death, and oppression.

So what’s the solution? To the extent that anyone is really going to start caring about Columbus on Columbus day (color me doubtful), why not add the Native American perspective to the hagiography from the textbooks of the past so that what we’re left with is a more accurate and nuanced view of what Columbus and his explorations meant for the world?

And why not make Indigenous Peoples Day a part of that?

What the activists pushing a replacement of Columbus Day are calling for is the replacement of one historical perspective with another. I’m not sure that’s any better than what we were doing with Columbus in the past. We’d be better off doing both, which I think is the point City Councilman Danny Weigel is making:

Council Member Danny Weigel worried about removing a holiday meant to recognize Italian Americans, but said he supports Indigenous Peoples Day and nonetheless voted “yes” for the resolution as-is. He read excerpts from an open letter written by the National Italian American Foundation that said it would be “culturally insensitive” to replace one holiday with the other.

“As a city, we strive to be welcoming to all backgrounds,” Weigel said. “I would offer that we create an Indigenous Peoples Day and that we also find a way to celebrate our Italian American population, possibly at the same time.”

What would be so bad about that? Instead of creating hard feelings by trying to elbow one another out of the way, how about we try to understand a little more about one another?

We certainly aren’t going to add anything to our culture through subtraction.

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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