WASHINGTON, Oct. 9, 2015 — The Albuquerque city council voted six-to-three Thursday to recognize Oct. 12 as “Indigenous People’s Day” rather than “Columbus Day.” It becomes the eighth U.S. city to do that in the last two months.
Berkeley, Calif., designated Oct. 12 as Indigenous People’s Day in 1992. Seattle followed suit in 2014; the city council’s vote was greeted by the joyful throb of beating drums and a performance of the American Indian Movement song in City Hall.
It’s appropriate that Berkeley was the first city to celebrate Indigenous People’s Day. The very name evokes images of young commissars meeting at Berkeley coffee houses and of indignant, middle-aged white people tootling off to campus in their Volvos, people with comfortable lives who must therefor be perpetually angry on other people’s behalf.
“Indigenous People’s Day.” It’s an ugly name, a leaden name, the sort of name only a committee would come up with, the sort of name only a Soviet could love.
If we want to rename Columbus Day, we should find something less ugly, something more evocative of poetry than of concrete. How about “Bartolomé de las Casas Day”?
(If you don’t know who he was, you’re not serious about the history of the oppression of native Americans anyway; you’re just a coffee-house poseur.)
Some critics say that Columbus Day honors a man who launched a genocide. Others argue that you can’t discover an already inhabited place, and Columbus wasn’t even the first European to find America; the Vikings were.
That’s all true. After Columbus came a wave of Spanish conquistadores, a mostly thuggish bunch with gold on their minds and the casual propensity to torture, maim, enslave and kill anyone in their way. They wiped out tribes, cities and civilizations. They brought with them disease, and they were followed by waves of immigrants hungry for land and not fussy about the fate of the previous occupants. Within a couple of centuries, the native populations were in collapse.
And the Vikings beat Columbus here by almost half a millennium.
The fact remains that Columbus was incredibly brave. You’d have to be to set off across the ocean in ships as tiny as his were. He was also wrong but lucky. Those opposed to his trip didn’t think the world was flat and that he’d fall off the edge; that’s a silly story we sometimes tell children.
They opposed it because educated Europeans had known since well before Christ that the world was not only round, but about 24,000 miles round; Columbus pegged it closer to 12.
“Columbus,” they said, “to get to the Indies by sailing West from Spain, you have to cross 14,000 miles of ocean. You can’t carry enough food and water in your tiny little boats for that kind of voyage. You’ll die!”
If he hadn’t run into the new world, he would have. A fool, certainly. A villain? Perhaps, but so were Julius and Augustus Caesar, and we don’t see anyone trying to rename the summer months. Brutal men are sometimes great, and even their mistakes can be earth-shaking.
What about those Vikings? Columbus’s encounter with the New World was earth-changing, and it was a genuine discovery. If Alexander Fleming had observed the anti-bacterial effect of the mold on his petri dish and then thrown it away, he’d have never become Sir Alexander or received a Nobel Prize. Those honors would have gone to the next man to discover penicillin, the one who thought to share that knowledge with the rest of the world.
Leif Eriksson discovered America 500 years before Columbus did. And then the Vikings mislaid the information and forgot about it. A pity, that.
But this is all about us, not about Columbus; if the name offends us, let’s change it. Italians and Americans of Italian ancestry take a lot of pride in Columbus, but if we rename Oct. 12 to something else, their guy will still have a country, a university — a very liberal one in New York City, at that — and the district that houses our nation’s capital named after him.
Given the moral pestilence that flows from Washington, perhaps “D.C.” is the worst, poetically just repudiation of Columbus possible.
If you don’t like “Bartolemé Day,” consider “Marco Polo Day.” Marco Polo may have visited North America two centuries before Columbus sailed, if recently discovered maps turn out to be authentic, and that change would avoid upsetting indigenous Americans of Italian ancestry.
Perhaps you’d prefer “Africa Day,” in honor of the roots of every human being alive. Humans, after all, aren’t indigenous to North America. We migrated from Africa, the only place to which we are indigenous.
If you want to honor the first European to find the New World, call it “Leif Eriksson Day” or “Viking Day.” If you think Europeans already have enough days, honor the people who were here when Columbus landed with “Native Americans’ Day.”
What, you don’t like “America” because it honors another European? Then if you must, let it be “Native People’s Day.”
Just don’t bother to define or identify “natives.” If you define “native” as “indigenous,” you’ve excluded the people in “Native People’s Day.” If you define it as those born here, immigrants will feel excluded, and it’s a cardinal sin to make immigrants feel excluded.
Just leave it undefined and Indians can bask in their special day, those of us who are a peculiarly American mix of races and ethnicities can define ourselves into inclusion, and even American-born Swedes can define themselves as “natives.”
What is America if not a place where people can self-define? And certainly “native” flows from the tongue more gracefully than “indigenous.”
Within a few years, those of us who celebrate Columbus Day will probably seem as quaint and benighted as people who disapprove of same-sex marriage. There’s little point fighting it, so let’s get ahead of the tide and find a better name than that vulgar mouthful of politically-correct sludge that seems poised to become our new holiday.
My vote is “People Whose Ancestors Were All in America Before Columbus Day” — it disses Columbus and keeps his name in the holiday all at the same time. What’s yours?