In more and more locales in the United States, the Federal holiday usually observed on this date since the late 20th century is being replaced with designations like Indigenous People’s Day, or First People’s Day, or Native American Day.
It’s only appropriate, because the former honoree on this day was somewhat of a genocidal maniac and not a very good navigator at all. You might have heard of him — Christopher Columbus.
Ironically, the entire impetus for a holiday in honor of Columbus began with a lynching, although the victims are probably not whom you might assume them to be. It occurred in New Orleans in 1891, and the victims were 11 Italian Americans.
See, one of the often-forgotten facts of American history is that, over the years, immigrants who came from places that were not Britain, Germany, or France were looked down upon as less than, and regardless of where somebody came from, being Catholic was also a big negative.
Scandinavians were… tolerated. You know — Vikings and all.
The Puritan, WASP origins of the U.S. were shining through brightly, despite huge numbers of immigrants arriving from European countries like Italy, Ireland, Poland, Greece, etc., from Asian countries like Russia, China, and Japan, and from everywhere else in the world.
Keep in mind that all of these immigrants sort of came over, if not illegally, then with no legal process other than, “Okay, you’re here now, good luck!” Not that there weren’t legal impediments.
For example, despite having exploited their labor in order to create a cross-country network of railroads, the U.S. decided about a decade before the New Orleans lynchings that they didn’t want any more immigrants from China, and so passed the Chinese Exclusion Act.
Meanwhile, all those other groups who were basically not Protestants from western Europe were looked down upon as second-class citizens. Irish people weren’t even considered white, and Italians were perceived as criminals at best and animals at worst — hence the lynching.
So, as the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ voyage intended to get to Asia but not even making it to North America arrived, and as a direct response to the lynchings, President Benjamin Harrison declared a one-off celebration honoring Columbus in 1892, largely to smooth diplomatic relations with Italy.
After that, it became somewhat of an annual, though unofficial, celebration among various Italian-American communities, with New York City first observing it in 1866. The first place to observe it as a statewide holiday was, possibly surprisingly, Colorado, in 1907.
However, it took the U.S. longer to make it a Federal holiday than you might think. In fact, a lot longer. Starting in 1934, Congress directed the president to make an annual proclamation designating October 12 as Columbus Day regardless of which day of the week it fell on, asking Federal Government buildings to display the flag and inviting citizens of the U.S. to observe it with appropriate ceremonies, but it was not a paid Federal holiday.
That didn’t happen until exactly fifty years ago in 1971, when the first official Federal Holiday in honor of Columbus was observed five years after a group began lobbying for it and three years after President LBJ signed the bill creating it.
Rather than October 12, though, the date was set as the second Monday in October, and wouldn’t you know it, the second Monday in October in 1971 was the 11th as well, so the holiday began exactly 50 years ago.
Of course, it’s hard not to see the irony in a holiday inspired as pushback to a hate crime honoring someone who committed many hate crimes himself. There’s no real way around it. Columbus was an absolute prick who saw the indigenous people as obstacles, not humans, and, along with his crew, proceeded to rape and murder their way through them, enslaving survivors and erasing their culture by forcing them to convert to Christianity, killing them if they refused.
Don’t forget, of course, all of the European diseases Columbus and Company brought over — smallpox, measles, typhus, and cholera, to name a few. The Natives, of course, had no natural immunity at all to any of them, and the idea of vaccination was still just over three hundred years away.
The final irony of celebrating Columbus with a holiday in the United States: He never even set foot in North Americas. So he really can’t be credited with discovering what became the United States, since he never actually got here.
Incidentally, October 9 has absolutely nothing to do with any significant dates in Erikson’s life. We don’t even know the exact dates he was born or died. Rather, this date was chosen because on October 9, 1825, the ship Restauration landed in New York, carrying the first significant group of Norwegian immigrants to America.
In retrospect, it’s kind of surprising that the Italian-American immigrant community would have settled on Columbus as any kind of representative figure at all, although history was very whitewashed at the time, so it’s most likely that all of his many crimes were either swept under the rug or, worse, seen as a part of Manifest Destiny and the divine right (as if) of Europeans to do whatever the hell they wanted to Native Americans.
Gosh… they sure didn’t have that attitude about the divine rights of Genghis Khan or Attila the Hun when they invaded Europe from the east. I mean, c’mon — both of them were even known as “the scourge of god.” If that’s not divine right, what is?
But, really — why didn’t the Italian-Americans pick someone like DaVinci? He was a contemporary of Columbus, after all, although he used his powers for goodness, not evil. Okay, DaVinci never tried (and failed) to sail to America, but that should never have been the salient point in the first place. The key words were redeeming the reputation of Italian-Americans, and it seems like the most efficient way to do that is to focus on the best and the brightest from the homeland.
Meanwhile, the Irish had much more subtle and subversive ways of shedding their bad reputation. First, they basically fucked their way into everyone, to the point that they are now, genetically, one of the most common chunks of DNA in Americans, second only to Germans.
Since they started out as outcasts, they had no problems marrying Native Americans or, after the Civil War, freed slaves. In fact, it’s not uncommon to see someone with an Irish surname show up in post-war Census records living far out west in places like the high plains or Oklahoma with a spouse listed as “Black” (or whatever designation was used at the time) but whose place of birth indicated that they might actually have been part of an indigenous tribe.
The Irish also never lobbied for an official federal holiday. Rather, they just exploited the proclivity of all those Protestant Europeans, particularly the Brits, to celebrate a good time by getting totally pissed, and so turned what was a very minor and sober religious observance back home into the totally wild booze-fest that became known as St. Patrick’s Day.
Side-note: You may associate the holiday and Ireland with green, but you know what the state color of Ireland, based on its association with St. Patrick, really is?
It’d be… blue.
One last thought on Columbus — never forget that his patrons themselves were also genocidal, fundamentalist maniacs who had expelled all the Jews from Spain just over six months before the voyage set sail, and killed the ones who didn’t flee, along with any Protestants who didn’t convert to Catholicism. Heard of the Spanish Inquisition? Yeah, that was them.
Those patrons would be Ferdinand and Isabella in case you’re wondering. And they were pretty vile people as well. And yet, for years, school children were sold this pretty lie that the Spanish King and Queen funded Columbus because he wanted to prove once and for all that the world was not flat.
Except that… no one believed this at the time, not even Columbus. Humans had known that the Earth was round since ancient times. No, what Columbus was looking for was a western passage to Asia as a way to give Spain a trade advantage by getting their faster.
Of course, he never suspected that the Earth was a lot farther around than he’d assumed, and there were a couple of big-ass continents with a huge ocean beyond them in the way. That’s why he declared the first place he landed to be the West Indes.
He thought he’d found islands just west of India and had achieved his goal. In that regard alone, he was a total fuck-up — and he should have figured that out if he knew how to read star charts worth a damn and might have been able to redeem himself, but he didn’t.
So… in honor of this national holiday, forget the disease-ridden invaders and, instead, focus on their victims. Contrary to popular (western European) myth, there were several large and thriving empires in the Americas before the European invasion, and the Incan Empire itself was pretty much a match for the Western Roman Empire.
Instead of remembering Columbus, remember the hundreds, if not thousands, of indigenous children killed in residential schools in Canada and the U.S. And the sole purpose of these “schools” in the first place was to separate the kids from their parents and then deprive them of their own culture and indoctrinate them to Western ways.
On this day, remember the Indian Removal Act and the Trail of Tears, and both the 1890s massacre at Wounded Knee, and the 1973 occupation, and, finally, take a moment to look at refugees and immigrants at our borders and remind yourself this.
In the eyes of the Indigenous Peoples we should be honoring today, anyone who came here from Europe, Asia, Australia, or Africa (although a lot of people from there were kidnapped) is an illegal alien. And, honestly, in all those empty flyover states — you know, the ones with only a handful of electoral votes — there is enough empty land to give every single tribe their own place to be, let them set up their own autonomous government, and then to be left the hell alone.
That’s why today should never again be thought of as Columbus Day, and why we’ve got a lot of work to do to correct the wrongs of the past.
One final thought. A lot of you may have heard the term “critical race theory,” and I totally understand if you react to it badly because it was invented by academics who, honestly can be really tone deaf even as they try to be accepting.
For example, academics came up with the term “Latinx,” which a lot of Latino and Latina people hate because it totally ignores the fact that Spanish is still a gendered language, plus there’s really no way to pronounce “Latinx” in Spanish.
But, of course, this term was imposed by educated white people, so is yet again a colonial holdover. From what I’ve heard, most people from the community prefer either Latino or Latina as appropriate or, if it must be gender neutral, Latine, which actually does follow the rules of Spanish.
Likewise, critical race theory is a term that really means nothing, but which academics can feel smug bandying about. But let’s call it what it really is: Teaching the truth about American history.
Who could be against that, right?
And the truth is that Columbus deserves no honors today. The indigenous peoples of the Americas do.