It sneaks up on me every year.
October has always been a busy month for me. My work schedule typically begins to heat up around this time of the year, while at home there are countless preparations to make for the coming Samhain celebration. At the same time there are Halloween costume details to fuss over, and social obligations, and what seem like a million other distractions, all competing for my time and attention.
And then, amidst all the noise, I hear someone mention ‘Columbus Day’ and for a moment there is confusion, both familiar and unexpected.
“Is THAT in October?!”
Is followed quickly by…,
“Why do people STILL celebrate that?”
Do people celebrate it? I can’t say that I’ve ever heard people excitedly making plans for the holiday. Here, in the U.S., the anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the new world is something of a second-class holiday. Sure, the mail doesn’t run and some people get the day off from work, but aside from that not much goes on.
Oh, except for the parades.
And school plays, no doubt, with a chorus of costumed little kids reciting, “In fourteen hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue…,”.
Why parades or plays or speeches or accolades of any kind for a man who was perhaps the worst explorer in history, and a fairly awful human being to boot?
For the execution of the journey to the to the Indies I did not make use of intelligence, mathematics or maps. It is simply the fulfillment of what Isaiah had prophesied.
Yeah, I can see where he might have needed help from “on-high”, because it’s pretty clear that neither intelligence nor mathematics were used in planning his first voyage. Columbus grossly underestimated the circumference of the Earth; so much so that if the Americas’ hadn’t been “in the way”, he and his crew would almost certainly have perished in the middle of the Atlantic.
What’s more, even after accidentally “discovering” the new world, he was always convinced that he had found a route to the East Indies.
There have been plenty of explorers and researchers who made critical mistakes in judgement and went on to learn from them, but not so the “Great Admiral of the Ocean.”
Now, his navigational and geographical follies aside, it might still be worth giving a historical nod to the man who opened up the “New World” for trade with the European powers. Maybe, that is, if history did not also reveal him to be a tyrant and a murderer of the worst order. His offenses against the natives were so extreme, that he was eventually arrested and sent home to Spain, in chains, stripped finally of his titles and ill-gotten wealth.
Oh what the hell, let’s throw him a parade anyway!
He discovered America after all.
(Nope – it was already populated, and anyway, the Vikings had stopped by in the 11th century.)
He proved that the Earth wasn’t flat.
(Nope – that had been fairly common knowledge since at least the 1st century.)
He set the tone for oppression and slave trade in the New World.
(Bingo – we have a winner – and what a fantastic legacy he left for us.)
So let’s fast forward about 500 years and see how things stand.
After more wars and massacres and broken treaties than anyone can safely count, it seems we have finally come to the point where we can show some genuine regret for the crimes of our ancestors. We have grown up enough, as a culture, to take responsibility for the actions of our predecessors and to show the indigenous peoples of this continent the respect and compassion that they deserve.
It seems that institutionalized racism, as long as it’s all in good fun, is just too dearly held for some sports fans to part with.
“The ‘Washington Redskins’ sports franchise has been a ‘tradition’ for 80 years,” we are told. “The name and image are,” I am assured, “a matter of pride, intended to honor to the warrior spirit of Native Americans.”
I have to ask, why so much sound and fury at the prospect of another name?
They’ve changed their name before (they were formerly the Braves) and other teams have changed names more recently without such hue and cry.
Would the team be changed somehow?
Would they play the game differently?
Would they be diminished in some way?
Or would they be the same team with the same loyal fans, only without the mocking disregard of the cruel history behind their name.
And while we’re thinking about offensive names we might want to change…,
And what if we gave up Columbus Day?
Oh we could keep the date, and the parades, and the school plays, but change the name (as some have already done) to Indigenous People’s Day, or Native American Day.
We could turn a second-rate holiday on it’s ear, and make it a day worth celebrating.
Words have power, and the names we give things are the most powerful words of all.
We need not carry the crimes of the past forward with us into the present day.
The choice is sometimes as simple, as to call a thing, by any other name.
***ADDENDUM (November, 14th 2013): If you had read this post a day ago you would have seen that it included two photos (gleaned from HERE and HERE) of Redskin’s Fans dressed in a mockery of Native American costume. Today I received a message from one of the ‘gents’ pictured who had this to say…,
“and calling me a portly guy is respectful too? how hypocritical of you. ban parodies! censorship is the way to go! rofl, your logic is beyond hilarious.”
Okay, so I’ll admit that using the word “portly” may have been uncalled for, but then again, I wasn’t really going for ‘respectful’ here. And, try as I might, I still find that I am unable to muster ANY respect for someone who so clearly misses the point.
Where, exactly, is the parity between one white guy calling another “portly” and institutionalized bigotry? One is disrespectful, yes, but the other is just obscene.
In any case, as ‘I’ am sensitive to the feelings of others when it comes to posting their images online without their consent, I have removed the “offending” photos from this post.