In Fourteen Hundred Ninety-Two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue; In the year of our Lord Two Thousand Twelve, they’re trying hard his day to shelve
Even under the best of circumstances, the national Columbus Day is a beleaguered holiday (twenty-two states don’t give their employees the day off, South Dakota calls it Native American Day and Hawaii celebrates Polynesian Discoverers’ Day), but the water is getting even rougher this year.
Trouble has long been brewing, mostly because Columbus WASN’T the first European to “discover” the New World and because of the downside of European exploitation/colonization of the Americas. According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, three St. Louisans are trying to change Columbus Day to Explorers Day, honoring everyone from Leif Ericson to Neil Armstrong. Meanwhile, I’ve seen a Facebook petition drive to replace Columbus Day with an official national version of Indigenous People’s Day (a.k.a. Native American Day).
I can see from a humanitarian perspective why poor Chris needs a vacation. Traditionalists place him on a pedestal and credit him with every single good thing coming from Western Europe and arising in the modern nations of North, Central and South America. His detractors hold him responsible not only for his own sins but all the plunder, slavery, disease, death marches, stereotypes and broken treaties that followed.
Yes, the legendary Columbus has the weight of the (demonstrably not FLAT) world on his shoulders. If he had it to do over, he would probably tell King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, “No, really. I just need enough to buy a pontoon and a fishing rod.”
I vote for KEEPING Columbus Day in some form. Explorers Day without Columbus as a frontman/poster boy could be too broad, unfocused and watered down. When we switched to Presidents Day it merely demeaned Lincoln and Washington without adding much to the “street cred” of Millard Fillmore, don’t’cha think?
Do we really need the holiday gradually expanding to include your roommate who discovered some milk with the Lindbergh baby on the carton way in the back of the fridge (“Here—smell”)?
We really DO need an Indigenous People’s Day (to remind us of the accomplishments AND hardships of the original inhabitants) but not necessarily by jettisoning Columbus Day. (And whenever it’s scheduled, I hope Native Americans can put up with the irony of giving a paid day off to representatives of the government that ripped them off. It’s true: “To the victor belong the three-day weekends.”)
Merely replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous People’s Day might become a way to marginalize Native American concerns instead of amplifying them. And I would advise its backers that Uncle Sam would probably make the proclamation bilingual (i.e. English AND “forked tongue”).
Nothing says a holiday can’t be controversial. Labor unions and a martyred civil rights leader both have their critics, but the nation is better for having Labor Day and Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.
We still need Columbus Day to focus us on the good AND bad of exploration, to serve as a lightning rod for dissent and debate, an open wound to keep us from repeating the bad parts of history.
Don’t downgrade it to honor the politicians who “boldly go where no man has ever squeezed blood from a turnip before.”