Folks in Wheeling, like folks in hundreds of towns and communities across America, celebrate Monday as Columbus Day. But, should they? Like so many things that were drilled into us in childhood, the Christopher Columbus lesson has crumbled under the weight of reexamination.
Perhaps no holiday has smashed tradition, patriotism, and misconception as controversially up against the facts of science, history, and misconduct as effectively as the reason we stay home on October 10—Columbus Day. No matter how you choose to observe the holiday—as a celebration of a cultural icon and fearless explorer, or as a day of remembrance and reflection over the decades of pain and agony the man eventually caused to be inflicted upon indigenous people—a lot of us get to sleep in.
Christopher Columbus, according to 21st Century historians, falls far short of the accomplishments he has been assigned by legend. The Italian certainly was not the first to advocate that the earth is round rather than flat (the first globe was produced in 1492 before he set sail headed west).
Many have concluded that he wasn’t even the first European to set foot on North America, instead awarding that distinction to Viking adventurers. But, he was a brilliant navigator with vision, a unique idea to prove, and the determination to convince other people to invest their money in a far-fetched theory—a kind of nautical researcher who was determined, funded after a struggle, and aggressive in proving his idea to be correct, except he was mostly wrong with devastating consequences for millions of innocent people.
He thought he had landed in Asia and searched high and low during four voyages for gold and spices to take home to irritated investors. Explorer Amerigo Vespucci concluded in 1507, a year after Columbus died, that the land old Chris bumped into was a whole new continent and not part of Asia. Columbus’ futile search for gold and spices led to his downfall in the eyes of most who become acquainted with the facts of history.
Desperate to take something of value home to the investors who were becoming anxious to recoup their funding, he began to enslave the indigenous people and haul them back to Europe as servants, and violently squashed anyone who opposed him. He also inadvertently introduced some nasty illnesses into this new territory. Obviously, much death and destruction resulted, which set the tone for incredible cruelty and brutality that lasted for hundreds of years. That’s where the carefully applied Columbus-as-hero varnish that kids once learned about in second grade begins to crumble, crack, and fade.
Columbus Day was celebrated as early as 1866 in New York City, by well-meaning folks who didn’t get the memo on Columbus’ unsavory issues, as a vehicle to celebrate Italian heritage. It first became an official state holiday in Colorado in 1905. In April 1934, after intense lobbying by the Knights of Columbus who also had the best of intentions, FDR and Congress proclaimed October 12 a federal holiday (the government changed it to the second Monday in October beginning in 1970).
Children were taught that Columbus was a virtuous, brave explorer who proved the earth was not flat, and it became a patriotic duty to celebrate his landing in America. But, history has overtaken legend and, although it is sometimes unfair to view historical figures of the past through current day social glasses, more and more people began to believe that Chris would probably not pass a hero litmus test.
So began the backlash. Berkeley, California replaced Columbus Day with “Indigenous People’s Day” observance in 1992. Santa Cruz, California; Dane County, Wisconsin; Minneapolis-Saint Paul, Minnesota; Seattle, Washington; and parts of Oklahoma call the day “Native American Day” instead of Columbus Day. Hawaii, Alaska, Oregon, and South Dakota do not recognize Columbus Day at all. Several other states removed the holiday as a paid day off for government workers. But, if you work for a U.S. federal agency or a bank or one of the other state governments, it is still a paid holiday.
You may celebrate the day as a way to recognize a man with a vision who had the guts and fortitude to prove his theory against social, scientific, and fiscal odds; you may be sickened by the avalanche of misery his actions imposed upon native peoples and consider him a scoundrel of tremendous proportions; you may see the day as way to celebrate Italian heritage as original proponents probably intended; or you may just welcome the chance to ignore your alarm clock and roll over for a couple extra hours of sleep. Whatever you choose to believe, make sure you don’t have to show up for work on Monday, October 10 for goodness sakes—it’s Columbus Day.