By Dylan Lee.
Christopher Columbus is our national contradiction: a man simultaneously lauded for his determined spirit of exploration and reviled for unabashed imperialism. His status of aberration, however, makes the holiday named in his honor a polarizing topic among those who disagree on his connotation in history.
Columbus Day should not be a celebration of adventurism—to restrict his legacy to such a word is nothing but ignorant glorification of history. I think it unwise, however, to rid ourselves of the holiday entirely.
Less than 24 hours ago, the White House posted on their website, President Biden’s presidential statement on his Proclamation on Columbus Day 2021. President Biden becomes first president to commemorate Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Biden’s recognition of Indigenous Peoples’ Day is a reversal from his predecessor: former president Donald Trump railed against “radical activists” trying to sully Christopher Columbus’s legacy. In his proclamation, he focused on the role of Italian-Americans in society and also on the role that Christopher Columbus played in oppressing indigenous peoples.
Over 500 years ago, Columbus “discovered” the New World on Oct. 12, ushering in the Age of Exploration and making the connection between Europe and the Americas. Since 1934, this nation has observed an official holiday in his name on the second Monday of October, though several states in many cities have never marked the holiday or have chosen to replace it with versions of “Indigenous Peoples Day,” to acknowledge previous ongoing struggles of native people who needed no discovering.
Prior coming to WSP for high school, I started my Waldorf education at the Berkeley Rose Waldorf School and then transferred to the East Bay Waldorf School. Perhaps, the location of both of these two Waldorf schools in the Easy Bay plays a role in how Indigenous People’s Day is acknowledged and how they made tremendous efforts to bring awareness to the students. Without fail each year, both schools organized an annual school assembly to invite an elder from the Ohlone Tribe to speak to all the students about the unique gifts that Native peoples and cultures bring to the world, the values of sustainable and peaceful living, caring communities, and respect for Mother Earth. As a young child, hearing their stories was mesmerizing and magical because I could picture a world of peace, beauty, care for the environment and love for the earth.
One of the first disappointment, I had about coming into ninth grade at WSP was that this day was not on anyone’s agenda; not at the high school announcement, or even mentioned in the classes except for the Native American History class that is offered at the end of the school year to the ninth grade. As a matter of fact, I was perplexed when I opened the high school planner that was handed out on the first week of school actually had listed Columbus Day on the second Monday on the October calendar page. I took it for granted that even though we all live in the one of the most progressive part of the country, not all of Bay Area has fully embraced the importance of adopting Indigenous People’s Day including the Silicon Valley.
When I investigated it further and brought this to the attention of the school administration, I was told that it was a generic calendar page published in the planner and it was nothing they could do about it. I suggested that perhaps they can change the supplier for the following year. I have been unsuccessful with this effort because I continue to receive the same planner with new dates each year.
Even though I continue to struggle with how most of the South Bay has not adopted Indigenous People’s Day and WSP continues to be tone-deaf to my request, this particular experience has brought a new understanding to me. Perhaps, Christopher Columbus Day should not be eliminated from the calendar. Rather, looking at our country’s most inconsistently-observed holiday has afforded me an opportunity to examine inconsistency itself. History is an instructive tool and understanding the challenges at present has made me realize that Columbus Day should be one of balanced reflection, considering Columbus’ achievements in context of his failures.
There are those who argue the holiday honors the history of immigration, not the explorer. Certainly, a universal moral imperative makes it impossible to find Columbus’ habit of violence, enslavement, forced religious conversion and the introduction of deadly disease compatible with prevailing principles of our time. Personally, I find his penchant for beheading, mutilation and other acts of the like to be abhorrent. The misery and degradation that plagued the New World after the arrival of colonial powers should not be overlooked or dismissed. As such, the holiday should not be chiefly commemorative.
The continuation of the holiday should not signify blind acceptance of the actions of former societies, but we should reflect upon such values. It is impossible to separate Columbus Day from its shroud of oppression completely. No country exists without blemishes—least of all ours—but we would do well not to merely forget them. Five-hundred-years of history has not been sufficient to clean the stains of imperialism, and I doubt 500 more years will do much more in that regard. Columbus Day, then, should be an opportunity to reflect on the horrors of historical experience and the evolution of society from the past.
The continued observance of Columbus Day should not signify acceptance of racist exploitative actions of former societies, but should inspire us to honor the contributions of an intermixed heritage. In this age of border walls in missions to space funded by billionaires, Columbus Day should remind us all of the errors of the past and the obligations of the future.
I can choose to pat myself on the back for refusing to acknowledge Columbus Day and calling it Indigenous People’s Day, or grab a novel by Rebecca Roanhorse and Christine Day from the library to read during the month. Next month, I could even decide not to celebrate the Thanksgiving narrative of community and friendship between the settlers and natives the same way I reject the Columbus Day narrative. Those are all good personal choices that builds awareness. But what’s truly needed is advocacy. Choose an issue to care about: food or housing security, women’s safety, equal work/equal pay and approach it with a racial lens. Volunteer. Protest. Act.
Only then, will the narrative truly change.