We celebrated Columbus Day on Monday. Well at least some of us did. Honestly very few of us did. In fact, according to the Pew Research Center, Columbus Day, the day we commemorate the landing of explorer Christopher Columbus in the New World, is one of the most inconsistently celebrated U.S. holidays, and one of the most contentious.
Since it became a federal holiday in 1937, organizations have protested it, cities have changed the meaning of the celebration, and many states have chosen not to honor the day at all. Just this summer the Minneapolis city council joined other city leaders across the country, in changing the name – and nature – of this day of remembrance. After changing the name to “Indigenous Peoples Day” Minneapolis City Councilmember Kshama Sawant told the local newspaper, “Learning about the history of Columbus and transforming this day into a celebration of indigenous people and a celebration of social justice…allows us to make a connection between this painful history and the ongoing marginalization, discrimination, and poverty that indigenous communities face to this day.”
In Mystic Chords of Memory historian Michael Kammen reminds us that societies reconstruct their pasts with the needs of contemporary culture clearly in mind, rather than faithfully record them. The commemoration of our country’s “discovery” is no different. If you can call it that, since there were people already here who didn’t know they were lost. I believe the new term is “Columbusing” – when you “discover” something that has been around forever. In America’s national memory, as an icon Christopher Columbus has gone from the embodiment of adventure and innovation in the Nineteenth Century to the brutal tyrant of the native islanders he governed for Spain in the Twenty-First.
In all countries history is intertwined with nation building. Holidays, French historian Pierre Nora says, like anthems, monuments and other forms of collective memory, reinforce national identity. But in a country as diverse as America there is no unified interpretation of these “sites of memory.” Because of America’s pluralism there are multiple interpretations of the same event, hence the shift from commemorating Columbus to celebrating the Indigenous people of this country. Perhaps we’ll all begin celebrating that day in the future.
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