A holiday for people who don’t know history

Maybe people who have the day off today should be conscientious objectors and show up for work.

“The atrocities that Columbus did to American Indians — killing thousands, making slaves out of them — it just doesn’t sit well with the American Indian community,” Leigh Jeanotte, director of American Indian Services at University of North Dakota, tells the Grand Forks Herald.

That it sits well with non-Natives is little more than the typical “I’m for something because someone else is against it” mentality in America, which Columbus didn’t discover, by the way.

Time calls it a “second tier holiday.”

Beyond the federal level, however, there is little consensus on Columbus Day. As of 2013, 23 states (plus D.C.) give their workers the day off as a paid holiday—meaning that state employees in the majority of the land go to work as usual. There’s no real standard for whether schools should be open or closed on Columbus Day either. In parts of the country where schools are closed, many parents face the frustration of scrambling to arrange childcare because they’re expected to work.

The fact that businesses, school districts, and state governments are divided about how to categorize Columbus Day is a pretty good indication that we as a nation are not sure how we’re supposed to feel about the day—or, for that matter, about Christopher Columbus and his historic “discovery” in general. Critics say that because Native Americans were here long before Columbus sailed to the Americas, he didn’t really “discover” anything in 1492. What’s more, Columbus’s arrival in the Americas is widely blamed for launching a centuries-long era of exploitation and genocide.

With that in mind, this year Minneapolis and, more recently, Seattle officially redesignated Columbus Day as Indigenous Peoples Day, following in the footsteps of Berkeley, Calif., which did the same way back in 1992. Meanwhile Oregon, Alaska, and Hawaii do not recognize Columbus Day at all, and since 1990 South Dakota has been celebrating Native Americans Day rather than Columbus Day on the second Monday of October.

Columbus Day started as a way to honor Italian heritage. Dumping Columbus Day would be an insult to all Italians, the theory from Brian Jordan in an op-ed in the New York Daily News, goes.

I have also marched in many parades that celebrate the heartfelt heritage of Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Mexicans, Colombians, Ecuadorans and many other Latino ethnic celebrations throughout the year and especially the recent Hispanic Heritage month. However, I fail to comprehend how a city that values inclusion would want to exclude a longtime, influential and loyal ethnic group such as the Italians. Such hysterical dismissals ignores the historical contribution of Italian Americans.

In his journals, Columbus noted that 9 and 10-year-old girls were in great demand as “slaves.” And yet, the nation’s textbooks still perpetrate the myth, creating new generations of ignorant people.

“We still are the only minority in the United State that has to enroll, that has to get a number from the United States government to claim to be Native American,” Mary Bordeaux, curator and director of Cultural Affairs for the Indian Museum of North America in South Dakota, tells Voice of America. “and so to continue celebrating and glorifying Christopher Columbus, we’re just continuing to support [the idea] that the people who were here before weren’t people, that they weren’t anything.”

And so, the holiday is on the way out. The Daily Beast says there’s a two reasons why a “not-Columbus-Day” is relevant.

The first is the shared history of the Americas, too often eclipsed by the story of U.S. “exceptionalism.” All of us, from the far reaches of arctic Canada to the tip of Tierra del Fuego, are in some way the products of the imperial adventure that started when the Santa Maria dropped anchor. An Americas Day could be about what this legacy—good and bad—means to all of us, across the Americas.

It looks like Columbus Day may be about to set sail into irrelevancy, but before saying good riddance we should think about its replacement.
Ideally, this holiday could be a time to recognize the often-overlooked contributions made to the U.S. from people in the Caribbean and Latin America. The wealth and prosperity of this country has long been supported by (or indeed, extracted from) our neighbors, from the Cuban sugar exports in the 1800s, to the Jamaicans who helped build the Panama Canal in the 1900s, to the Mexican and Central American immigrants whose work is now crucial to the U.S. economy.

Spain and other Spanish-speaking nations have their own version of Columbus Day, known as Día de la Raza or Día de la Hispanidad (Day of the Race or Hispanic Day), which attempts to celebrate the world that the fusion of Europe and the Americas created, though this is not without controversy either. And this leads me to the second point: there is no specific day that commemorates the Hispanic past of the United States. After all, Spanish conquistadors arrived in the early 1500s, well before the Jamestown settlers in 1607 or the Pilgrims in 1620. Columbus, while opening the door for Spain, was from Genoa, so celebrating him confuses this part of U.S. history. This is not to say that there should be a Conquistador Day, but there should be a reminder that the story of Europeans in North America does not begin with the Mayflower.

But Columbus Day still has plenty of support in areas with high concentration of Italians. And good luck taking a paid day off away from federal government workers.

Related: Seattle Swaps Columbus Day For 'Indigenous Peoples' Day' (NPR).

What's closed on Columbus Day/Indigenous Peoples Day (Minnesota Public Radio News).