Tuesday, October 10, 2000
Where were you when Columbus sailed the ocean blue? I, of course, was not yet alive, but my ancestors were, herding yaks in Russia, selling salt in Poland. One was probably a rabbi.
In America, there were lots of people "native" to this land or migrants from across the Bering Straits. But Columbus never made it to America. He landed in the Bahamas, claimed "India" for Spain, and in lieu of the gold and spices he had expected to find, took indigenous slaves back to Europe.
Was the earth flat? Certainly not, but Columbus wasn't the first person to discover that. Did Isabella sell the crown jewels to finance the expedition? I don't think so. Was Columbus a worthy hero? Not in my estimation.
Saturday's Columbus Day parade in Denver sparked a controversy between Italian-Americans, Native Americans and the city of Denver that was watched by an entire nation. All sides claimed success. In a sense, all sides succeeded.
The Italian-Americans got their parade, the city its peaceful afternoon, and the Native American protesters received national exposure for their cause. Democracy at work, it seems.
Or was it?
Unfortunately, the parade was not free of Columbus references. Participants held aloft a Columbus banner and other symbols of the "discoverer" of America. In addition, the organizers of the parade retained the name "Columbus Day" as opposed to the agreed-upon "Italian Pride." Cities like New York and San Francisco have already done away with all references to Columbus in their parades. Sometimes semantics is just semantics. This time it isn't.
Why do we still celebrate this holiday? Aside, perhaps, from breaking up that long stretch between Labor Day and Thanksgiving with a vacation, there seems to be no good reason to continue to trample people beneath that vaunted explorer's feet. Christopher Columbus is both a symbolic and literal villain in the storybooks of Native Americans.
Moreover, new historical evidence has shown Columbus to have taken native slaves back with him when he returned to Spain. This alone should surely put a glaring asterisk by his name in the history books. Not to mention the trail of slaughter left behind by similar "conquerors" both in North and South America and in the Carribean that was set off by Columbus' voyage.
Heroes resonate especially deeply with children. The stories we tell our young ones stay with them. Symbols hold especially fast when we parade them up and down our city streets. A parade glosses over Columbus' life and its aftermath, bypassing colonialism and its consequences in favor of banners and bells.
Let's choose our heroes and our celebrations wisely. An Italian-American day, as Native American leader Glenn Morris proposed, is a wonderful idea. Or an American Day, where a more pluralistic notion of America could be celebrated.
Let's make a promise to move toward a more equitable reconciliation. Columbus Day, with all its connotations and misrepresentations, casts a shameful pall over our nation, which has already broken treaties enough.