Two weeks ago, President Joe Biden issued a presidential proclamation declaring that this past Monday, the same day we traditionally celebrate as Columbus Day, be “Indigenous Peoples Day.” The official proclamation, the first ever issued by a sitting president, was the most significant attempt yet to refocus the federal holiday not so much on the Native American Indian, but away from Christopher Columbus.
But Native American tribes, and many liberal politicians, say ending Columbus Day is not happening fast enough. They say that white Americans — especially Italian Americans — have “tried to paint Columbus as a benevolent man, similar to how white supremacists have painted Robert E. Lee,” they say.
Columbus was, they say, a horrendous individual set on enslaving the Indian people and responsible for bringing disease and violence to the Native American tribes.
The indigenous people were here first, say the politicians, and Native Americans, so how could Columbus discover America and why should he be honored?
But are the Indians truly any more native to our land than Columbus? True, they were here before the explorer, but many historians claim they originally came, on foot, from Europe across a land bridge that existed at that time.
Ken Ham, the Australian visionary responsible for the Creation Museum and the Ark Encounter says there is only one race. The only difference is the pigment of our skin.
Still, supporters of ending Columbus Day say not honoring indigenous peoples on this day just continues to erase our American Indian history and the fact that we were the first inhabitants of this country.
When I was young, Columbus Day didn’t receive much attention. It earned most recognition for being a day many national and local retailers held huge sales. We didn’t get out of school and I don’t remember there being any special programs or studies regarding Columbus offered to students that day.
But still, hearing that “Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492” story as part of our study of history, and reading it in books and magazines, we were taught to recognize his curiosity, courage and resilience that led to opening of this continent to all of the Old World.
But if Columbus hadn’t made that leap of faith, someone else would have. We know there were others before him who visited this land — Amerigo Vespucci and Leif Erickson, for example, along with various groups from Ireland, Denmark and other parts of Europe and Asia.
So why the movement to get rid of any appreciation of Columbus? All across our country there has been tension regarding the Columbus holiday since the early 1990s. Monuments and statues of the Italian explorer have been destroyed like those of many Southern generals. In Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love, officials placed a box over a Columbus statue last year in the wake of the Minneapolis murder of George Floyd.
Lincoln, NE, added Indigenous Peoples Day on the same date as Columbus Day in 2016. Events in Lincoln last Monday focused on the newer holiday and included the unveiling of a statue honoring the first Native American physician, Dr. Susan La Flesche Picotte.
We are a nation in flux, but we cannot erase history. Why is it necessary to do away with our long-established American traditional holidays to establish others? Why can’t we honor Native Americans another day of the year?
I’ve read numerous pieces suggesting our nation is headed toward another American Civil War. The red states against the blue states. The liberals against the conservatives. The blacks against the whites. Are we seeking equality or are we really seeking political, ethnic or racial superiority?
Blood is running hot and anger is everywhere in our country.
We can’t erase history. We need to learn from the past and use that knowledge and understanding to build the future. And we must learn to work together and appreciate each other.
Have we already forgotten the words of Rodney King, who during the 1992 Los Angeles riots made a television appearance saying, “I just want to say — you know — can we all get along? Can we, can we get along? Can we stop making it horrible for the older people and the kids?”
Peter W. Wagner lives in Sibley. He is the founder/publisher of The N’West Iowa REVIEW and may be reached at email@example.com.