West Hartford’s Board of Education just changed Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day on their public schools’ calendar. Depending on who you are, you’re either pleased by the tiny amount of justice for five centuries of conquest and genocide, or you’re furious that, once again, your culture is under attack by a bunch of thoughtless liberals.
There really is no in-between option. There are probably a few people who haven’t picked a side, or don’t care, but for most this triggers an immediate reaction. History is now intensely political, and everything political is cultural and tribal.
Christopher Columbus is no exception. Either he’s a symbol of Italian-American pride and a brave explorer, or a terrible man who enslaved and licensed the torment and murder of native peoples in pursuit of gold. Is there a way to reconcile these two views?
Oh, absolutely. Columbus was a monster even for a man of his time, and we shouldn’t honor him in any way.
Some facts: Columbus enslaved the native Taino people and forced them to work in his gold mines, cutting the hands off of any who didn’t deliver a monthly quota. He brought thousands back to Spain in chains — many died on the voyage. He encouraged the viciousness of his men toward the native population, including rape, torture, and indiscriminate murder. Half the population of the island of Hispaniola (modern day Haiti and the Dominican Republic), some 125,000, were dead within two years. Within 50 years, no members of any native tribes from that island remained. This is genocide by any definition.
Columbus was such an awful man that a royal commissioner from Spain actually had him arrested and dragged back before King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. They, having gotten rich from the plunder of his voyages, pardoned him.
In short, he’s the perfect symbol for the uncountable crimes Europeans committed against native peoples over the next 500 years. It is wildly immoral to have a federal holiday named after him, and Columbus Day should have been consigned to the scrap heap decades ago.
But I guarantee you it will be a long time before it ever goes away. Even if Congress can ever work up the political will to abolish it as a federal holiday, a few deep red states will immediately reinstate it as a way to thumb their noses at the “coastal elite.”
Why? I mean, history is rarely as clear-cut as it is with Columbus. It would have been better for everyone if his three ships had sunk in the broad Atlantic. Maybe much of what happened after still would have taken place, but maybe it would have been less brutal. There might even be Taino people still alive on Hispaniola today. If we had any decency left we would excise him from our national pantheon.
But this truth doesn’t seem to matter, because of how intertwined politics, culture, and history have become. We can barely agree that slavery was bad — we certainly can’t agree that the rebel country founded to protect it perhaps lacked some fundamental morality. Why would we be able to come to some sort of consensus about Columbus?
History used to be a source of comfort for many Americans. History told us that our nation was founded on liberty, that we were special and always did the right thing, that our heroes were blameless and perfect, our westward expansion was right and harmless, and that we were all part of a long march toward progress and equality. This was especially true for generations like my own who were never taught much of the other side.
I was comforted by American history once. It seemed so clear to me that we were the good guys, and that all of us lived together in peace and equality. America was the shining city on the hill, there was nothing better than being born here, and we could be proud without reservation.
Unwinding that narrative and prying those myths out of my head took a long time. It’s a hard process, and a painful one. It felt like taking some more innocent version of myself out back and shooting her.
Here’s the thing, though: we need to understand what really happened before we can move on. We need to scrap the myths, and we need our leaders to convince people who resist why it’s so necessary.
West Hartford’s Board of Education took a small step, and I hope the rest of us can someday as well. Connecticut abolishing Columbus Day for a celebration of our state’s indigenous people would be a fantastic start.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.
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