On Columbus Day

Columbus Day was upon us two days ago, celebrating the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the “New World” and there’s been some good backlash against it. Now, let me say that I think it’s well deserved: there’s very little in Columbus himself that we should be celebrating, and there’s a deeply unhappy strain of racism, white supremacism, and lack of historical consciousness in a blanket celebration of the so-called discovery of America. But, and this is where it becomes more complicated, the solutions offered by some this year seem to be well-intentioned enough, but similarly problematical. The Guardian‘s James Nevius notes that Columbus was a lost sadist, and he’s certainly correct. But here’s his counteroffer:

Rather than a holiday celebrating one man, let’s have a day where every local community celebrates the native cultures connected to that locale. In New York, we could honor the Algonquin-speaking Lenape; in Utah, there could be a festival for their namesake Utes; in the Dakotas, a celebration of the Sioux, while at the same time recognizing the plight of many Indians on reservations.

It seems a natural substitution from conqueror to conquered, but it’s similarly irrational, and somewhat random. There is no denying the plight of Native Americans on reservations today, and we would do well to recognize it (and even better to do something about it that’s not merely symbolic); but what would be the point of celebrating, instead of single people, entire, complex, often largely unknown cultures, on the basis that they used to be where we are now? Not, to be sure, remember them, investigate them, and discuss the way they came to an end, but to celebrate them? For one thing, what about these cultures should be celebrated? The Ute were, among other things, a warrior culture, as were the Sioux – but I don’t suppose we are meant to celebrate their version of tribal warfare? And though Nevius doesn’t mention them, for the Iroquois, as Daniel Barr has shown,

War represented a many-sided expression of their world view, a complex, vital component of Iroquois culture that was at times an almost daily part of their lives. (Unconquered, xv)

Do we celebrate this part of Iroquois heritage? I doubt that we should. And that is the problem: the proposal is nonsensical because it rightly condemns one undifferentiated world view (Columbus “discovered” the New World for Europeans) with another one: all Native American heritage should be celebrated. But to substitute the blanket celebration of complex cultures for Columbus is banal and knee-jerk, and does no one justice; substitute celebration instead, as Nevius does in describing Columbus, with historical discussion; in lieu of celebration, highlight this discussion, historical awareness, and a measured analysis of all the consequences of the momentous events of October 12, 1492. You’d be doing Native Americans a favor, and you’d still get to dismantle the idealized Columbus of yore.

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