Hope You’re Enjoying Indigenous Peoples’ Day Weekend

Columbus Day Parade, a traditional celebration of Italian heritage

Columbus Day Parade, a celebration of Italian heritage

W.J. Astore

In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.  And he discovered a new world.  New to him, of course, and his fellow Europeans, not to the indigenous peoples already living there.  Yes, Columbus gets too much credit for that “discovery.”  Yes, he and his fellow Europeans were incredibly ambitious, often vicious, and not overly interested in the fate of indigenous people.  The three Gs of overseas exploration usually applied — God, Glory, and Gold, often with greed for gold and other valuables taking first priority over spreading the Gospel or winning a reputation (titles and other personal honors).

But are we truly showing sensitivity to Native Americans by changing the name of Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day, as the Seattle city council did earlier this week?

For many years, I taught world history.  The key event that touched off the modern world was the Columbian Exchange, the reconnection of the Old and New Worlds and the transfer/diffusion of peoples, animals and plants, products, ideas, and so on between those two worlds.  Of course, this transfer greatly favored Europeans and utterly devastated indigenous people, especially since Europeans brought all of their “old world” diseases with them, such as smallpox, which ripped through Native American populations that lacked immunity to those diseases.  As indigenous people experienced mass death, mainly due to these diseases, Europeans sought another labor source they could exploit for their plantations and mines and farms in the New World, tapping into a preexisting trade in African peoples.  The rapid expansion in exportation of African slaves (more than 12 million being shipped to the New World between Columbus’s voyage and the end of the slave trade in the 19th century) is another ghastly and haunting feature of the Columbian Exchange.

Columbus’s voyage changed the world, usually for the worse for the indigenous peoples of America as well as the peoples of Africa.  But are we truly showing cultural sensitivity and enlightenment by renaming Columbus Day in honor of indigenous people?  By rectifying a name, are we really doing anything to rectify a wrong?

Long ago in the United States, Columbus Day ceased being connected in any solid way to Columbus.  It morphed into a celebration by Italian-Americans of their heritage while much of the rest of America went shopping (at least that’s what we’re told to do by incessant ads and by the media).  Dismissing the celebratory traditions of Italian-Americans in the name of cultural sensitivity for indigenous peoples seems more than a little contradictory.

Want to show sensitivity to indigenous peoples?  Give them back their land.  Treat them with dignity and respect — you know, like they’re human beings just like you and me.

Vigorously patting yourself on the back for your sensitivity in inaugurating an “indigenous peoples’ day” — well, it just seems like another flabby exercise in cheap grace that requires no real sacrifice — and no real penance as well.

7 thoughts on “Hope You’re Enjoying Indigenous Peoples’ Day Weekend

  1. We have several Indian tribes in the Pacific Northwest. I am wondering how they are viewing this. It would seem to me that this is very much along the lines of “Thank you for your service.” In my opinion, this is not Seattle’s proudest moment.

    Dotti Snow

  2. Apropos of the occasion, a little something from Breakfast of Champions, by Kurt Vonnegut (1973):


    “The teachers told the children that this was when their continent was discovered by human beings. Actually, millions of human beings were already living full and imaginative lives on the continent in 1492. That was simply the year in which the sea pirates began to cheat and rob and kill them. …

    “Actually, the sea pirates who had the most do do the creation of the new government owned human slaves. They used human beings for machinery, and, even after slavery was eliminated, because it was so embarrassing, they and their descendants continued to think of ordinary human beings as machines.

    “The sea pirates were white. The people who were already on the continent when the pirates arrived were copper-colored. When slavery was introduced onto the continent, the slaves were black.

    “Color was everything.

    “Here is how the pirates were able to take whatever they wanted from anybody else: they had the best boats in the world, and they were meaner than anybody else, and they had gunpowder, which was a mixture of potassium nitrate, charcoal, and sulphur. They touched this seemingly listless powder with fire, and it turned violently into gas. This blew projectiles out of metal tubes at terrific velocities. The projectiles cut through meat and bone very easily, so the pirates could wreck the wiring or the bellows or the plumbing of a stubborn human being, even when he was far, far, away.

    “The Chief weapon of the sea pirates, however, was their capacity to astonish. Nobody could believe, until it was much too late, how heartless and greedy they were.”

  3. I must disagree with Sara, Dotti, fearless and the author of this piece. Words do matter, as our poetry guru,Mike Murry often points out !
    There is absolutely no equivalence between the Italian- Americans giving up their favorite National holiday in favor of one city recognizing the disaster and generational destruction Europeans brought to the indigenous people who this land belonged to. It is no different than our designating a Martin Luther King Day to recognize the evil of slavery and generational discrimination.
    A nation has to start somewhere in recognizing its failures and the language we use is a step in that direction. The words do matter because they start the citizenry rethinking history. Italian-Americans were often discriminated against, probably mainly because of their religion just as the Jews, but both groups have made real progress while the indigenous people still are mired in exploitation and poverty while the African-Americans have made some progress but still suffer massive discrimination.
    And yes! If the indigenous people feel The Washington Red Skins is demeaning to them , CHANGE THE NAME
    I remember when words like Kike, or Yid, or Wop, or Ginea, or Mick were in common usage. But those minorities represented substantial voting blocks in urban areas so those words have disappeared.

  4. Clarification. My interpretation of the article’s statements and the comments in which all seemed to diminish the importance of Seattle and apparently Minneapolis changing the wording of the “Day” because there was no action is the reason for my comment. I agree that actions should follow the words but I applaud the fact that two major areas used words to bring attention to the plight of the indigenous people. Thought leads to words and words lead to action. Withut the words there will be no action.

  5. Instead of Columbus Day, perhaps we could call it “Discovery Day” or “Encounter Day” and examine the meeting of “old” and “new” worlds in all of its complexity. For Italian-Americans, perhaps there could be a “Renaissance Day” that commemorates the enormous contributions of the Italian city-states to human history, to include the spirit of exploration captured by Columbus, as well as the contributions of Italian-Americans to the USA.

    But simply changing the name to Indigenous Peoples’ Day seems like a sop to Native Americans and a slap to Italian-Americans.

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