Hope You’re Enjoying Indigenous Peoples’ Day Weekend

Columbus Day Parade, a traditional celebration of Italian heritage
Columbus Day Parade, a celebration of Italian heritage

W.J. Astore

In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.  And he discovered a new world.  New to him, of course, and his fellow Europeans, not to the indigenous peoples already living there.  Yes, Columbus gets too much credit for that “discovery.”  Yes, he and his fellow Europeans were incredibly ambitious, often vicious, and not overly interested in the fate of indigenous people.  The three Gs of overseas exploration usually applied — God, Glory, and Gold, often with greed for gold and other valuables taking first priority over spreading the Gospel or winning a reputation (titles and other personal honors).

But are we truly showing sensitivity to Native Americans by changing the name of Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day, as the Seattle city council did earlier this week?

For many years, I taught world history.  The key event that touched off the modern world was the Columbian Exchange, the reconnection of the Old and New Worlds and the transfer/diffusion of peoples, animals and plants, products, ideas, and so on between those two worlds.  Of course, this transfer greatly favored Europeans and utterly devastated indigenous people, especially since Europeans brought all of their “old world” diseases with them, such as smallpox, which ripped through Native American populations that lacked immunity to those diseases.  As indigenous people experienced mass death, mainly due to these diseases, Europeans sought another labor source they could exploit for their plantations and mines and farms in the New World, tapping into a preexisting trade in African peoples.  The rapid expansion in exportation of African slaves (more than 12 million being shipped to the New World between Columbus’s voyage and the end of the slave trade in the 19th century) is another ghastly and haunting feature of the Columbian Exchange.

Columbus’s voyage changed the world, usually for the worse for the indigenous peoples of America as well as the peoples of Africa.  But are we truly showing cultural sensitivity and enlightenment by renaming Columbus Day in honor of indigenous people?  By rectifying a name, are we really doing anything to rectify a wrong?

Long ago in the United States, Columbus Day ceased being connected in any solid way to Columbus.  It morphed into a celebration by Italian-Americans of their heritage while much of the rest of America went shopping (at least that’s what we’re told to do by incessant ads and by the media).  Dismissing the celebratory traditions of Italian-Americans in the name of cultural sensitivity for indigenous peoples seems more than a little contradictory.

Want to show sensitivity to indigenous peoples?  Give them back their land.  Treat them with dignity and respect — you know, like they’re human beings just like you and me.

Vigorously patting yourself on the back for your sensitivity in inaugurating an “indigenous peoples’ day” — well, it just seems like another flabby exercise in cheap grace that requires no real sacrifice — and no real penance as well.