Celebration or Atonement?

Things are heating up in the Columbus Day controversy – an annual challenge to our European icon. It is obvious that the target on the Great Navigator’s back is bigger than ever now that the old Confederacy – its flag, statues, and memorials – is on the run.  For many, Columbus is the new ‘lost cause.’  The man who ‘invented racism’ by crossing the Atlantic in 1492 is the focus of all the anger, frustration, and victimization suffered by those in our wonderful mosaic whose roots weren’t in Europe.  But make no mistake, there are many Euro-Americans who are open to toppling traditional heroes.  The debate is simple enough:  Europeans screwed everyone and everything by exploring the world; native peoples of the Americas, Africa, and Asia were paragons of virtue until defiled by Western Civilization.

The simple solution is for Euro-Americans to just trash some tainted heroes and embrace the positive folklore of Indigenous peoples everywhere. In short, expunge Columbus and celebrate the contributions of Native Americans.  The problem is, what exactly are we going to celebrate?

We know that the Genovese explorer and his fellow Italians – Caboto, Vespucci, and Verrazzano – opened the New World and joined two hemispheres for the first time in history, but that’s peanuts compared to what the Indigenous Peoples did for humanity. Theirs was a world without slavery, without war, without hunger, without oppressed women, without human sacrifice or cannibalism… or so they would like us to believe.  It was also a world without the wheel, without metal tools, without horses, without farm animals.  I suppose we could celebrate the tomato, the potato, cocoa, corn, and squash.  But, oddly enough, the North American Indians didn’t know about tomatoes, potatoes, or cocoa until Europeans passed these things on to them from the Amerindians south of the border.  It seems long distance exploration and communication were other traits absent from Indigenous culture.

Next time you hear from anti-Columbus revisionists ask them what exactly will we celebrate next October 12th – the vegetables of the Indigenous peoples or merely their existence?  You can also ask them if opening the Americas to immigrants from the other continents was a huge mistake?  Their underlying message is exactly that – their ancestors should have driven European immigrants into the sea.  And don’t think they didn’t try.  Columbus suffered two massacres before he declared war on the Taino natives.  The natives on both continents knew early on that white immigrants wanted a piece of the American pie, but the natives were seduced by the trade goods.  The Indigenous people considered all Europeans ‘undocumented aliens’.  Their immigration policy was essentially xenophobic.  We wouldn’t have much of a beautiful mosaic had the alt-right Indians had their way.

Destroying a holiday that now celebrates the unification of the globe and replacing it with a Pollyanna version of history is a lesson in nothing. Indigenous Peoples Day is an empty gesture.  Will school children be taught the full story of Amerindian culture or just the ‘nobility’ of it?  Will children be wrongly taught that the natural spread of diseases like European smallpox was actually genocide?  Will they be taught that a Stone Age culture was humanity’s brightest moment?

As I perceive it, Indigenous Peoples Day is meant to be a Day of Atonement for Euro-Americans – all the bad things and none of the good. If that’s the case, then we will come full circle in replacing Saint Columbus with the Noble Savage.   Here’s a thought: if you want to memorialize the Indigenous peoples, just pick another day, like Thanksgiving.     -JLM

2 thoughts on “Celebration or Atonement?”

  1. If Columbus can be vilified because he made possible the European conquest of the indigenous population, the slave trade and the death by European disease of much of the indigenous population of the American continents, then what about Vespucci? He could also be held fully accountable for the same “crimes”. Let’s brace ourselves because the day may soon come when some demand that we stop calling our country America. The Encyclopedia Britannica article on Columbus is certainly contrary to most of the distortions one sees about Columbus.


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