Opinion | Columbus Day rears its tired head. Give it a rest
As local and state-wide efforts to recognize the history of indigenous people and their communities bloom, loyalty to a harmful historical figure and idea remain
By Xav Horkman
One of the more interesting elements of human nature is the passive acceptance of established social constructs.
You may have seen these social experiments on television before. An unsuspecting citizen (and subject of a hidden camera) will be in, let’s say, a doctor’s waiting room.
A beeping noise comes into the room, and when it arrives, everyone except the unsuspecting subject will do something innocent and unexpected, like raise their hand without much expressed thought. A few minutes into this exercise, the confused citizen will join in and start doing what everyone else does, out of puzzled, unspoken obligation. And eventually, some well-coiffed, suit-wearing host comes out with a camera crew and shoves a microphone in the citizen’s face as we all enjoy their confusion-turned-relief. Entertaining stuff.
Unfortunately, this idea of passive acceptance isn’t only limited to experimental reality show antics. One of the more questionable spaces in which this idea reigns free is the upkeep of Columbus Day—slated for Monday, Oct. 11 this year.
Annually, we still do this dance. We embrace and admire a flawed and unworthy character in the form of a federal holiday. A Sept. 24 National Public Radio report showed a recent discovery of ancient footprints in New Mexico’s White Sands National Park estimated to be at least 21,000 years old, far predating the supposed discovery of the Americas.
The suggestion that Columbus’ “discovery” and navigation deserve the honor of federal holiday recognition becomes more and more laughable by the year. Thankfully, this recognition has taken a dent locally of late. In 2019, Governor Tony Evers declared the second Monday in October—the same date as Columbus Day— to be Indigenous Peoples’ Day through an executive order.
“Through this executive order,” Evers said in a October 2019 statement, “we recognize and appreciate our tribal nations and Indigenous people and their resilience, wisdom, and the contributions they make to our state. Native Americans in Wisconsin and throughout our country have suffered unjust treatment—often at the hands of our government—and today is about recognizing that Wisconsin would not be all that it is without Indigenous people.”
Here in the Green Bay area, local indigenous leaders recognized the historic moment. Oneida Nation Vice Chairman Brandon Stevens said talking about the difficult history is an important step forward.
“Proclaiming ‘Indigenous People’s Day’ is a concrete opportunity to denounce the historically inaccurate account of the ‘discovery of America’ by Columbus and associated false theories of the ‘Doctrine of Discovery’ and ‘Manifest Destiny’ whereby the genocide and violence (against) indigenous peoples is not acutely considered,” Stevens said in a October 2019 Kaliwisaks (Oneida newspaper) report.
“Reclaiming ‘Columbus Day’ as ‘Indigenous People’s Day’ is also an opportunity to promote healing and wellness in Oneida whereby these legacies are inextricably connected to the existence of federal boarding schools, removal from traditional land and culture, and trauma from further acts of colonialism.”
Green Bay engaged in similar, admirable efforts of positive recognition, when, on the same day two years ago, Mayor Eric Genrich read a proclamation also declaring the second Monday in October as Indigenous Peoples’ Day within the city.
“Being the mayor, it’s really important for me to celebrate everything about this community,” Genrich said in an October 2019 Kaliwisaks (Oneida newspaper) report. “The diversity of this community, and everything that make us strong and unique. This is a really important part of that.”
Earlier this year, Green Bay and the Oneida Nation signed a service agreement where both entities share law enforcement mutual aid, intergovernmental cooperation, public improvements and have placed land into trust. This signed agreement shows Mayor Genrich isn’t just delivering empty quotes or engaging in political posturing.
As bright as hope shines from these efforts, there are local dimmers as well. A July 4, 2020 Associated Press report outlined how Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson proposed an amendment to eliminate Columbus Day as a federal holiday in order to establish Juneteenth as a federal holiday. After quickly receiving backlash from usual supporters, such as the honorable Tucker Carlson,
Johnson rescinded the efforts.
According to AP, Johnson said the proposal was meant to “start a discussion” and he suggested eliminating Columbus Day because few Americans get the day off as a paid holiday anyway. He also said he in no way was deprecating Christopher Columbus’ achievements or expressing any judgment on Columbus’ place in history. Such brave and admirable work from an important elected Wisconsin representative.
It’s a shame this weird tradition continues. It becomes hurtful to see the apathy towards attempting to understand an Indigenous perspective on the topic. Maybe Senator Johnson and his ilk who continue to prop up the false achievements of Columbus (noted slave owner and catalyst of genocide) need to keep their hand down despite the beeps in their respective waiting rooms.
Xav Horkman is an artist and freelance writer currently operating in the Green Bay area. His writing includes, but is not limited to, environmental and Native American topics. You can read more of his writing at iffybrass.com and patreon.com/xavhorkman. You can also follow him on Instagram @iffybrass and @xavhorkman.
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