It's Columbus Day today in America. It's the day dedicated to remembering Christopher Columbus landing in the New World on 12 Oct 1492, in the Bahamas. Coincidentally, it's also Thanksgiving Day for Canadians, so Happy Thanksgiving, Canadians! Enjoy your sweet pickled beaver and roasted moose!
When I was younger, Columbus Day was a federal holiday--still is; except back then, there was no school and banks were closed. Now, it's up to individual states how to celebrate the day of discovery. I liked being off from school, because it meant an extended weekend holiday and there were only four days of school left in the week. I never gave much thought to Columbus Day, other than wonder what life was like aboard the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria--and wouldn't it have been better if the Santa Maria was named something that rhymed with the first two, like the Quinta or the Hasta La Vista?
As I grew older, I was surprised to discover that some people actually protest against Columbus Day. I thought to myself, Good gawd! Who doesn't want a day off? Seriously? I was curious and started to do some research. Suffice it to say it was an eye opening experience. While everyone agrees that Columbus' discovery was a momentous event that changed the world, it's the impact of that change that's being challenged and debated.
I was in high school, in my late teens, and until I started researching, it never occurred to me that Columbus' discovery marked the beginning of some of the darkest chapters in human history. I never thought about how Columbus and the Europeans would see the New World as a resource, including the people, whom they considered inferior. I never thought about how the indigenous people of the Americas were subjected to slavery, slaughtered if they resisted European conquests, and were wiped out from the diseases and the destruction the Europeans brought with them. They don't tell you about this stuff in classes when you're making drawings of the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria.
And they certainly don't tell you about how these native peoples were forced to labor in dangerous mines for gold and silver to fuel European conquests and religious wars. Not to mention how this was beginning of the global slavery of an entire race of people from another continent, kidnapped and forced to work in dangerous, difficult conditions.
The truth is, Christopher Columbus was a horrible man. He enslaved the natives, sold their children into sexual slavery, and butchered them for resisting. And these were the honest, kind natives who helped salvaged the Santa Maria when it was shipwrecked. Within 50 years, these native people were extinct, exterminated by Columbus with the blessings of royalty and the compliance of the Church. It was genocide. And when there were no more natives to enslave, an entire new race of people were kidnapped and forced from the African continent. And the slave trading of the African peoples would flourish for the next four hundred years, their dehumanization would last well into this millineum.
It was the beginning of the end for the indigenous peoples of the Americas. The Europeans not only brought soldiers to subjugate the natives, they also brought their priests to wipe out the natives beliefs and ideology. For the next five hundred years, the accomplishments of the indigenous peoples, their history, and their very way of life would be exterminated and erased systematically by the immigrant Europeans bent on conquest.
It's kind of ironic how the American Thanksgiving was basically a day created by those Pilgrims to share with the American Indians their harvest, to thank the Indians for helping them survive in the harsh new world. The Native Americans taught these immigrants how to farm, and fish, and hunt in the new environment. Perhaps if the American Indians had foreseen the destruction those Pilgrims and their descendants would bring, they would've left those Europeans to starve and die. But they did not know that their kindness and mercy upon these foreigners would lead to the destruction of the Native American peoples and their way of life.
I suppose it's easier to look back in hindsight and see the mistakes that were made and the failures of the past. The truth is, those people did what they thought was right, what they thought was the norm for their time. We're doing the same. But times change, thankfully. We live and learn for the most part. And I'd like to think we've made some strides since those dark days. We've abolished slavery and women have been granted the right to vote. The history books are being rewritten as the achievements and legacy of the indigenous people are now being recognized and given their due. The surviving natives have embraced their culture and stand with pride. In some parts of the Americas, including the US, Columbus Day has been renamed and celebrated as a day dedicated to the native Americans. In other places, it's dedicated to the multicultural heritage of the Americas.
Everyone agrees that Columbus making contact with the New World was a global event that changed not only the course of human history and development, but has changed the world as we know it. Species crossed into new environments; landscapes were razed and reconstructed in the race to obtain resources; groups of people and animals and plants were wiped out from new diseases and war and the changing geopolitical and natural environment.
We still have some ways to go to improve the lives of not just the native peoples, but the people of the Americas as a whole. But out of the clash of the Old World and the New World, a new people was born out of the mixture of cultures and ideas. We've forged an identity of our own. And though we may speak many different languages and have many different ideas, one thing still remains, these lands are our home, and we all share a responsibility not only to care for these lands, but for all the peoples who live upon it.
I'm not sure how we should celebrate Columbus Day. I'd still rather have the day off. I support celebrating it as a day to remember the indigenous people of the Americas. But I also think that Columbus' achievement should also be remembered. After all, this was an event that changed the course of human history. And maybe that's what Columbus Day should be about. It should be about change. Whether or not that change is positive is up to the people who live in these times. After all, change only happens when people take action. And I'd like to think that Columbus Day is a day to remind us to take action and to do our part to learn from mistakes of the past; to do the right thing; and make the world a much better place for all of us: the immigrants, the natives, and all those who've come to call this place home.