“Descending upon our cityscapes and backcountry fields in strange vessels, we received them with scientific wonder. They donned exotic garments and spoke in alien tongues. Equipped with unknown instruments and tools, they sought to draw resources from our farms and our waters. None among us had ever encountered beings such as them.
“The more they observed, the more they desired. Then came the wars. The disease. The enslavement. The famine. They turned weapons against us that we could not fairly repel. They communicated diseases to our people, for which our bodies had no defense. They sucked dry our waters and ate whole our farmlands, as more and more of them descended upon us. Their hunger was insatiable.
“They promised peace, but tricked us into signing away our homes. They conducted social ‘experiments,’ taking our children from their beds and ‘assimilating’ them into their society. They dissolved our sovereignty. They disparaged our culture with brutish mockeries. They bastardized our religion with cheap movies and road-side gift shops. For centuries, we have endured abject suffering at their hands.
“And each year, they celebrate the first among them to make contact with our people.”
For many Americans, this account probably seems like it belongs on the back of a Stephen King novel or in an M. Night Shyamalan film. But what if you took a moment to really think about the “story” above, and what it would mean to actually live through such an experience? Though farfetched, what if those horrors were to manifest themselves in our society tomorrow?
For the more than 3 million Native Americans living in the U.S., this story is more than an uncomfortable narrative; it’s a history they do not have the luxury of forgetting. It’s the history of their ancestors, the Americas, and of this country, in particular. It’s a history pain, suffering, loss and depravation.
That is why when we stand together and each year honor Christopher Columbus for “discovering” the Americas, we effect a great moral injury. What message does it send to those whose culture was targeted for enslavement and extinction by this man?
It’s salt in the wound.
For the vast majority of Americans, Columbus Day is a day to which they look forward. It’s a day off. A much needed reprieve. But for native people, it’s a solemn reminder of the great cost at which our present existence has come. It’s reminder of a history steeped in bloodshed and atrocity — after all, Columbus wrote freely in his diaries about the peaceful nature of the first natives he encountered and how “easily” they might be enslaved.
While the rest of us celebrate a day to watch Monday night football, or get some extra yard work in before the first frost, native people are left to consider the weighty reality of this nation’s history.
So where does that leave us as a society? Does it even matter? Should we do away with Columbus Day in its entirety? The answer, surprisingly, is no. A cogent solution is to reappropriate Columbus Day as “Indigenous Peoples Day” — which a number of cities across the U.S. observe — or “Native Americans Day.”
Honoring native people and culture in place of Columbus isn’t a cure-all. It doesn’t come close to healing gaping, historic wounds. But then again, nothing can. What observance of this day does do is properly refocus the spirit of the holiday. It creates something of utility from which we can stand together and honor the traditions of a people who have called these lands home since time immemorial.
Locally, such a movement also would underscore the nation’s first Truth and Reconciliation Commission focusing on restorative efforts to mend the broken relationship between the Wabanaki People and Maine State Child Welfare Services.
For many Americans, Columbus Day is barely a blip on the radar. But for those who take pride in native culture, it begets sorrow. If that’s the case, what do we stand to lose by moving forward and reappropriating the second Monday of each October? Surely, it is “unpleasant” or “painful” for non-natives to reflect on this history, and some might ask: “what’s the point?” But the question should be: how do we move forward? If we only have the capacity to fix what we can control, then what are we waiting for?
Columbus is long-gone, and his importance in history has been misplaced. Let’s refocus this day on people who matter.
It’s time to let Columbus die with history.
Joe Gousse is a third-year student at the University of Maine School of Law, where his studies focus on issues of Indian law and tribal sovereignty.