Thursday, October 15, 2015

Columbus Day

My friend, Chuck Till, recently wrote on his blog that the US should revision Columbus Day as Indigenous Peoples' Day. He carefully caveated his remarks that he intended no insult to Italian-Americans (who provided the impetus for creating the holiday in 1934) or to Christopher Columbus who, whatever else he may have been, was assuredly an intrepid sailor. As a sailor, I echo Chuck's respect for Columbus. As a child, and now as an adult, I could never fathom the disdain that parts of my family had for one of my great aunts who had married an Italian-American. Diversity enriches rather than harms life.

First, I agree with Chuck. Replacing the Columbus Day holiday with Indigenous Peoples' Day is a good move. Each year fewer people and businesses seem to observe the holiday. The European exploration and conquest of the Americas had at least as many negatives as positives, e.g., the coerced relocation of African slaves and the subjugation/extermination of indigenous peoples through war, famine, and disease. An annual commemoration of Indigenous Peoples' Day is a step that the US can take to present a more comprehensive, balanced, and accurate interpretation of its history than the one that widely taught in the public schools, i.e., heroic explorers and highly moral, courageous settlers striving to create the Promised Land out of virgin wilderness.

Second, I want to reply to an Ethical Musings' reader query of some months ago whether the US could make amends to Native Americans. Nobody can undo the past. Nobody can make amends to injured people now dead. Nor does anyone have the wisdom to set right present wrongs caused by yesterday's actions. In other words, I very much doubt that we can make amends to Native Americans for wrongs done during the past four centuries.

However, the question of how to make amends – analogous to campaigns to win apologies to the present generation from governments and others for sins committed by ancestors – focuses attention in the wrong place.

To the extent that we celebrate the conquest of the Americas, regardless of what we say or imply about indigenous peoples, we perpetuate the lie that the invaders were superior.

To the extent that an Indigenous Peoples' Day contributes to ending that lie, the holiday will be constructive. To the extent that an Indigenous Peoples' Day increases awareness of the wrongs done, intentionally (e.g., enslavement) and unintentionally (e.g., spreading disease to people who lacked immunity in ways not then understood), the holiday will also be constructive. To the extent that an Indigenous Peoples' Day motivates persons, organizations, and governments to promote wholeheartedly and effectively equal respect for all, the holiday will be constructive.

Instead of apologies, let us stop perpetuating the evil. No way to amend the past exists. However, we can amend how we treat people who suffer in the present from a legacy of past mistreatment such that we alter the future for them and for us. Affirmative action is sometimes one positive means of accomplishing this goal. More fundamental is valuing others – their culture, their ethics, their humanity – as much as we value ourselves.

I don't pretend to have remedies to the problems that plague indigenous peoples. I do recognize that treating them as second-class (the reservation system) has produced a slew of evils (high rates of alcoholism, crime, and poverty to name just three) and no visible benefits. Native American reliance on revenues from licensed gambling operations has perpetuated rather than ended this second-class status, generating new revenues without significantly improving quality of life for most Native Americans.


If debating whether to establish an Indigenous Peoples' Day will focus national attention and concern on these continuing problems, then that debate will have achieved more than has the commemoration of Christopher Columbus for the past eighty years.

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