Politicizing Columbus Day
By Robert Jensen
Published in teleSUR · October, 2015
“Why does everything always have to be political with you?” a colleague asked, as I was railing against the U.S. federal holiday honoring Christopher Columbus.
The subject came up after the news that my modest hometown of Fargo, North Dakota, is considering a proposal to declare the second Monday of October “Indigenous People’s Day” instead of the traditional Columbus Day. Last year, Seattle and Minneapolis became the first major American cities to endorse the shift, and a movement is slowly building across the country, with the hope of one day having the federal holiday renamed.
Why make a simple long-weekend holiday a political issue? I’m not “making” it political — how we describe our history and who we claim as heroes are inescapably political because it reflects how we understand the world, and those choices reflect our values. If we want to live in a meaningful democracy, that’s politics — arguing about the values that shape public policy.
Some people dismiss such disputes as merely symbolic, but words and symbols matter. When I was growing up in Fargo, in school we sang the ditty that begins, “In fourteen-hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue,” which goes on to happily explain, “The Arakawa natives were very nice; they gave the sailors food and spice.” What did Columbus give those natives back? Slavery and death, mostly. The unsavory deeds of “The Great Mariner” may be unpleasant for the non-Indigenous inhabitants of the United States (such as me) to ponder, but it is a crucial part of our history whether we like it or not: Christopher Columbus initiated, and participated in, the European genocidal campaign against the Indigenous people of the Americas.
Although the movement to stop honoring Columbus with a holiday is gaining support, most of white America would prefer to avoid the subject, often suggesting that we find less provocative language to talk about Columbus and the conquest. In classes at the University of Texas at Austin, I make the point that there is no escape from making judgments about history by putting on the screen a simple sentence with a request that students fill in the blank:
“Columbus __________ America.”
When I was a grade-school student in the mid-1960s in Fargo, we filled in the blank with “discovered,” a word with political implications. If we say Columbus discovered America, we imply that other humans had yet to set foot on the island of Hispaniola, since a claim to discover something is a claim to be the first person to arrive. But since Columbus found the island inhabited by the Arawak-speaking Taino people, asserting that he and the other Europeans with him discovered America suggests that the Taino were not fully human, not capable of discovery. To use the word “discovered” in this context, then, is racist and ethnocentric. There is a politics to the choice of “discovered.”
Sometimes students will respond that “discovered” is just shorthand for “was the first European to discover.” But if that’s what is meant, then why not use the full phrase? Is it really crucial to save those five words? And if that is the case, would we be just as likely to describe the first Indigenous Americans’ trip to Europe by saying those folks discovered Europe? Even in the most charitable interpretation, the claim that “Columbus discovered America” is European-centric, and that is a political stance.
When I ask students to suggest another term, some come back with “conquered,” “colonized,” “destroyed,” or similar terms. A strong case can be made for choosing such words (I often use them myself), but they just as clearly have political implications, primarily a judgment that the actions of Columbus and other Europeans were immoral, illegal, or illegitimate in some fashion. There are obvious political judgments in the choice of those terms.
Students then offer a variety of terms that, on the surface, seem to avoid judgment: “encountered,” “engaged with,” or — my favorite of all the ones ever offered in class — “stumbled upon.” But those words, despite the appearance of neutrality, also carry a politics. I offer the students an analogy: Suppose some folks from another neighborhood roll into your part of town, make their way through the houses of you and your neighbors, steal everything of value, and kill or work to death everyone. Would you say that those newcomers “encountered” or “stumbled upon” your neighborhood? Such a seemingly neutral term would obscure the violence, and therefore would favor the marauders.
There’s no escape from history, nor from being responsible for the judgments we inevitably make about history.
This controversy is part of a larger problem in the United States, where people tend to be selective about how they use history. When people want to invoke some grand and glorious aspect of the past, then history is all-important. We are told how crucial it is for people to know history, and there is much hand wringing about the current generation’s lack of knowledge about, and respect for, that history. In the United States, we hear constantly about the wisdom of the Founding Fathers, the spirit of the early explorers, the determination of those who “settled” the country, the heroism of soldiers — and about how crucial it is for everyone to learn about these things.
But when one brings to a discussion of history those facts that contest the celebratory story and make people uncomfortable — such as the nearly complete genocide of Indigenous people that was at the center of the creation of the United States — those same history-lovers will say, “Why do you insist on dwelling on the past?”
So, it appears that those parts of our history that prop up our sense of ourselves as a noble and righteous people are the proper focus of study and public comment; what’s important to know is what can be celebrated to make ourselves feel good. Those who also want to include in that discussion the uglier aspects of our past are accused of looking to cause trouble.
If by trouble, people mean trying to stimulate an honest conversation about how the United States came to be the most affluent nation in the history of the world, then I endorse trouble-making. An important step in understanding the violence of the United States around the world today is coming to terms with the violence of our past. As William Faulkner wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
So, when the Fargo City Commission takes up the Indigenous People’s Day proposal on the recommendation of the city’s Native American Commission at its next meeting — which happens to be Monday (October 12), on Columbus Day — I’ll be taking the opportunity to talk politics, past and present.