August 21, 2019
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Charting a new course for Columbus Day

Susan Sharon | Maine Public
Susan Sharon | Maine Public
Former Penobscot Nation Chief Barry Dana testifies in support of a bill to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day in Augusta.

It’s harder and harder to see why Maine shouldn’t drop Columbus Day and instead celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day on the second Monday in October.

A bill is once again making its way through the Maine Legislature that would rename Columbus Day as Indigenous Peoples Day. Several municipalities across Maine — including Bangor and Orono — have joined with over 130 local governments and seven states to rename Columbus Day in recognition of America’s native people. It feels like the right time to make Maine the eighth.

A potential change like this one can understandably feel a bit like political correctness run amok to some, but if legislators listen to tribal voices in Maine and across the country, study Christopher Columbus’ history — including the fact that he never actually set foot on what would become the United States of America — and look at the history of the holiday itself, the decision shouldn’t be too difficult.

[Maine tribal leaders make the case for changing ‘Columbus Day’ to ‘Indigenous Peoples Day’]

Leaders from Maine’s tribal community explained to the Legislature’s State and Local Government Committee earlier this month the potentially harmful impact of celebrating Columbus, whose complicated legacy includes the killing and enslavement of native people.

“It’s still very much an attack on your spirit when you celebrate a man who really is the poster child for 500 years of genocide,” former Penobscot Nation Chief Barry Dana said.“Let’s celebrate us and let’s begin those healings, because Maine should not be a place that celebrates the memory of genocide.”

Here’s what history tells us: Columbus didn’t reach the U.S. During his first voyage to what is today the Americas, he came ashore on the island that is now Haiti and the Dominican Republic. He later went to what is now Central and South America. He was looking for Asia.

This isn’t a matter of erasing Columbus from history — he and other explorers undeniably played a critical role in the shaping of the Americas, and he offers valuable lesson about the complexity of achievement. But that doesn’t mean we need to continue to elevate him to the same level of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. by recognizing him with a specific holiday.

[Opinion: Indigenous Peoples Day is a step toward justice for all]

Ascribing today’s moral standards to historical figures is always tricky business, and should be done carefully. But it’s important to confront the past inconvenient realities and complex figures like Columbus. We can still assess, learn from and, yes, appreciate parts of Columbus’ legacy without continuing to honor him every October.

Instead, Maine has an opportunity to celebrate its native people and indigenous communities across the country. Importantly, it’s also an opportunity to listen to tribal voices and understand their struggles at a time when the state-tribal relationship is desperately in need of increased trust and communication.

One of the biggest push backs to the idea of Indigenous Peoples Day has come from members of the Italian-American community, arguing that taking this holiday from the Italian explorer is a detriment to Italian-American heritage.

Italian-Americans themselves have faced discrimination and hurtful stereotypes over the years, and early Columbus Day celebrations were an exercise in Italian-American pride. The day even first gained status as a national holiday under President Franklin Roosevelt in 1937 in part because of lobbying from the Knights of Columbus. But given the evolution in how we understand Columbus, it’s hard to see how a holiday named after him continues to truly honor Italian-Americans.

A different reason to hesitate about the change actually has little to do with Columbus or Italian heritage. It’s about voting.

[Opinion: Putting history in perspective makes a strong case for keeping Columbus Day]

An idea to swap out the federal Columbus Day holiday and replace it with a holiday on Election Day has gained steam, particularly with progressives, as a way to help boster voter turnout.

Shifting the early October holiday to November to give more voters a chance to participate in democracy could be worth exploring, but that effort could admittedly become more complicated if Columbus Day becomes Indigenous Peoples Day. However, if Election Day is going to become a federal holiday, the decision will of course come at the federal level. And that’s a conversation for another day.

For now, renaming Columbus Day here in Maine would be an important gesture to our tribal neighbors — a gesture that can help improve state-tribal relations, even if it doesn’t fix other longstanding problems. The name change would demonstrate a historical and cultural awareness, and a willingness to listen. And that’s a good place to start.

 



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