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On the Divisions of Columbus Day

On the Divisions of Columbus Day
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Time has a habit of sifting through the many facts of history and leaving only a few stark facts. Of Christopher Columbus' landing in the Americas in 1492, common teaching as of the 1970s was that he, in search of the East Indies, instead found the Americas. It was the common rhyme taught in many schools:

In fourteen hundred ninety-two,
Columbus sailed the ocean blue.
He had three ships and left from Spain.
He sailed through sunshine, wind and rain.

Most salient of these points is that Columbus Day represents the spread of Western European culture and politics. The rhyme continues to present Columbus as a great explorer, the Native Americans as benevolent and generous hosts, and a great communion of Western Europeans into the New World.
Most people know now that this wasn't close to the real story. Although there was a certain amount of benevolence recorded on the side of the Native Americans (the peaceful people he met were the Lucayan, Taino and Arawak), Columbus and his men did not return the favor. Upon seeing many of the Natives ornamented with gold, Columbus took some as prisoners and forced them to take him to the source. Some trading was done, but when the Native Americans refused to give Columbus all that he desired, he ran them through with spears. Columbus wrote of them in his log:

They ought to make good and skilled servants, for they repeat very quickly whatever we say to them. I think they can very easily be made Christians, for they seem to have no religion. If it pleases our Lord, I will take six of them to Your Highnesses when I depart, in order that they may learn our language… I could conquer the whole of them with 50 men, and govern them as I pleased.

Columbus returned to Spain with this information. Historian Howard Zinn writes in his highly acclaimed book A People's History of the United States, "Because of Columbus's exaggerated report and promises, his second expedition was given seventeen ships and more than twelve hundred men. The aim was clear: slaves and gold. They went from island to island in the Caribbean, taking Indians as captives.”

Since the knowledge of Columbus' treatment has entered the mainstream, many progressive cities like Minnesota, Seattle, and San Francisco have decided to celebrate the second Monday in October as Indigenous People's Day over the former.
Many Italian Americans are against this backlash, because the Columbus Day signals for them pride in their own heritage in America's short but diverse history. Italian Americans also experienced racist treatment in the late 1800s up until the early 1900s, although not to the same severity as Indigenous Americans experienced. This was during a high influx of mostly southern Italian immigrants into America due to poverty and political hardship in their own native land. Their struggle to create a new homeland is now a source of pride.

Still yet other Americans choose to celebrate Columbus Day as yet another date to recognize America and the discovery of their country.

How do we determine whom to respect on this day? The San Francisco Unified School District retitled the holiday “Columbus/Indigenous People’s Day/El Dia de La Raza,” where kindergarten teacher Robert Sautter says in an article from The Atlantic, “Facilitating children’s understanding of a wider view—a broader perspective—is always important [and] goes a long way as students grow up and encounter various forms of misinformation or disinformation about Columbus or The Mission District or Latinos or immigrants.”

Surely the best line to walk on this issue is to simply present the facts as they happened in history, build up the structure for children and adults alike to reach their own conclusions, and rename the holiday a combination of Columbus and Indigenous People, deriding neither the Italian Americans or Indigenous People around the world.

For more books on these topics and cultures, look into The Discovery of America by Christopher Columbus, The Italians in America by Philip M. Rose, The Italian Emigration of our Times by Robert Franz Foerster, The Abnakis and Their History by Eugene Vetromile, The American Race by Daniel Garrison Brinton, and Turquois Work of Hawikuh New Mexico.

By Thad Higa



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