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Opinion Northwest

Join the informed writers of The Times' editorial board in lively discussions at our blog, Opinion Northwest.

October 7, 2014 at 6:07 AM

Dueling Columbus-Indigenous Peoples holidays obscure nuanced understanding of American history

Seattle City Council’s decision to commemorate the second Monday of October as “Indigenous Peoples’ Day” will be tough for some Italian-Americans and U.S. traditionalists to accept.

Aiden Eaglespeaker, 11 months (hand on sign) and her mother Jennifer (left of Aiden) listen to discussions about changing the name of Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples' Day at a September 2014 Seattle City Council meeting. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)

Aiden Eaglespeaker, 11 months (hand on sign) and her mother Jennifer (left of Aiden) listen to discussions about changing the name of Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day at a September 2014 Seattle City Council meeting. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)

The date is already set aside as the federal holiday commemorating Italian explorer Christopher Columbus’ arrival in North America in 1492.

Even before the Catholic benevolent organization Knights of Columbus successfully lobbied for the holiday in 1934, celebration of Columbus’ arrival in the New World had been ritualized for generations in the U.S. to foment patriotism.

The holiday has also come to carry huge significance for many Italian-Americans, whose immigrant ancestors were greeted with hostility during their mass migration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Having since carved out a place in the national identity, many Italian-Americans now see the holiday and the man it’s named after as the principle credential for their Americanness. It doesn’t matter that he thought he’d landed in Asia and never actually set foot on the North American continent.

Members of the Knights of Columbus, take part in Columbus Day ceremonies October 8, 2012 in Washington, D.C. The day marks the 100th anniversary of the National Columbus Memorial that was unveiled by President William Howard Taft as part of a multi-day celebration in 1912. (Win McNamee / Getty Images)

Members of the Knights of Columbus, take part in Columbus Day ceremonies October 8, 2012 in Washington, D.C. The day marks the 100th anniversary of the National Columbus Memorial that was unveiled by President William Howard Taft as part of a multi-day celebration in 1912. (Win McNamee / Getty Images)

Columbus’ sterling reputation among Italian-Americans isn’t shared among descendants of the indigenous people who lived in the land he “discovered” thousands of years prior to his arrival.

His fateful journey precipitated a European powers land grab and pestilent genocide; the likes of which humanity had never seen. Historians differ on how many indigenous people were killed through colonialism and smallpox, but it’s somewhere between 2 million and 100 million.

To put that into context, it’s estimated that about 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust, and 7 million died from Soviet leader Joseph Stalin’s forced Ukrainian famine.

So, America’s indigenous people – including many Latinos with indigenous ancestry – understandably have a visceral reaction to Columbus’ name.

But placing an Indigenous Peoples’ Day on the same date as Columbus Day does little more than create a dueling holidays scenario in the arena of popular culture.

For most Americans the 10 days set aside as federal holidays are nothing more than brief respites from their workaday existence. There’s little chance that an Indigenous Peoples’ Day will have much success deconstructing their mistaken belief that “Columbus discovered America.”

A better idea would be to accurately teach the good, bad and ugly of American history in American schools.

Yes, the United States gave the world jazz and Hollywood, put a man on the moon, and has served as a citadel of modern democracy. But it also infected hundreds of rural Alabama blacks with syphilis for an experiment, exploited Chinese labor to build the transcontinental railroad, and all-but finished the genocide of Native Americans that Columbus effectively started.

No one person or people can claim exclusive credit for all of the nation’s accomplishments, nor should they shoulder exclusive blame for all of its shameful acts.

Instead Americans should have a nuanced understanding of our complicated history. And since such detailed instruction is absent in most school curriculums, we’ll have to find a special way to convey it.

A national holiday should do the trick.

Comments | Topics: columbus day, holidays, indigenous peoples' day

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