Friday, October 12, 2007

The Real Columbus Day

When I was growing up in the Midwest, Columbus Day was always October 12. I can remember that parades were held, and for some reason – I never discovered the “why” of the color – a purple stripe was painted on the street along the parade route. I also can remember being confused one year when it dawned on me that the parade organizers were from the Italian-American, not the (then) Spanish-American, community. The explanation, of course, was that Columbus was an Italian who just happened to find a job with the reunified Spanish kingdoms of Ferdinand and Isabella.

That hardly mattered as every “American” loved watching the parade – except perhaps Native Americans, but they were nowhere to be seen.

October 12, 1492 is the date on which a sailor in the Pinta sighted land in what Europeans would call the “New World.” Three hundred years later, in 1792, the Order of St Tammany (the Columbian Order) held the first known observance of Columbus Day in New York. One hundred years later, President Benjamin Harrison issued a presidential proclamation urging citizens to observe the date by special ceremonies. The “cause” was then picked up by the Roman Catholic fraternal/service organization, the Knights of Columbus. In 1907, the Colorado legislature became the first to make October 12 a formal holiday
Today the parades and celebrations are met by counter-demonstrations mounted by the descendents of the estimated 700,000 who were the indigenous inhabitants of the northern part of the land that Columbus “discovered.”

Many Native Americans see Columbus not as the intrepid explorer who opened a new chapter in European history but as the source of a multi-generational process of conquest and domination – indeed, even genocide – whose effects are still felt widely among the descendents of those who first greeted the three-ship mini-fleet from Spain. In truth, he was both. He was also a man motivated by the stories of the riches that were to be found in the East, a motive shared by his royal patrons.

There had been hope that the issue would have moved from the national level to the broader one of respect for the dignity and the rights of all indigenous peoples. Last month, the United Nations affirmed the dignity and rights of indigenous peoples around the world when the General Assembly, on September 13th, passed the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that passage of the Declaration “marks a historic moment when UN Member States and indigenous peoples [are] reconciled with their painful histories and resolved to move forward together on the path of human rights, justice and development for all.”

The chairperson of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, an advisory body to the Economic and Social Council whose mandate is to discuss indigenous issues related to economic and social development, culture, the environment, education, health and human rights, noted that the Declaration explicitly encourages harmonious and cooperative relations between UN Member States and their Indigenous Peoples. It prohibits discrimination against indigenous peoples and promotes their full and effective participation in all matters that concern them.

The Declaration’s goal of mutual respect speaks directly to Native American objections to celebrating rather than simply acknowledging that on October 12, 1492, two worlds previously unknown to each other, collided and altered the course of history of both.

Some histories have been corrected, others have been rewritten, but still others remain unchanged – just as public observances tend to roll along heedlessly year after year. As celebrated by most Americans, all the emphasis is on the “discovery” of a land occupied by “savages.” The effect is to perpetuate the myth that some cultures are “better” or more “civilized” than others. This in turn “justifies” whatever course a Member State decides to pursue with respect to its native population.

Some observers have called for deleting the holiday from the calendar while others suggest renaming it Ethnic Diversity Day, Native American Day, or Indigenous Peoples Day. Another option might be to change the whole debate by switching the date for parades to September 13 to note the adoption of the Declaration by the General Assembly. One could then create a compromise “short title” (e.g., World Ethnic Diversity Observance) that might be the starting point for a harmonious dialogue about potential change.

There’s one fly in the ointment, however. The United States opposed and ultimately did not vote for the Declaration. The measure passed the General Assembly on a vote of 143 in favor, 4 opposed (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the U.S.) and 11 abstentions


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