As a youthful coin collector, the first United States commemorative coin I acquired was the one bearing the likeness of Christopher Columbus. I liked it a lot, partly because I thought the commemorative coins were cool, and partly because thought Columbus was cool. I mean, he discovered America, for heaven’s sake! George Washington may have been the Father of our Country, but without Christopher there would have been no America for George to be Father of. Great men don’t come much greater than that.
Such was the reality taught to school kids in the 1950’s.
Maybe forty years later, I began to learn some things that by now have tarnished the image of Christopher Columbus. I think it was his own journals that began to reveal him as somewhat different from the stellar person we had all been told about. We learned about how he treated the people who were already here, the people whose ancestors had discovered the Western Hemisphere thousands of years before Columbus ever set sail. He, like other European explorers, apparently believed that whatever he found in the place he discovered belonged to him. And also, for that matter, the inhabitants. According to that logic, it was perfectly appropriate for him not only to take the gold he found but to enslave the natives.
Descendants of the Europeans who laid claim to America are finally questioning the attitudes and actions their ancestors. Today, a number of cities across the country are celebrating “Indigenous Peoples Day” instead of Columbus day. I like that. There is no question that Columbus achieved a great feat in reaching this continent by sea, even though the Vikings may have done it first and some think others may have made it here from the Pacific Ocean even earlier. But what seems to be very widely accepted is that Asians came to North America across a land bridge into what is now Alaska, long before anyone else was here. Many years ago, one of my brothers told my family that he knew some people who said anyone who thought Columbus discovered America was a racist. My father thought that was ridiculous, even though the Indians were here first. But my other brother and I thought it made sense. When our father said that what the original Americans did was not what is meant by discovery, we said that is exactly the point. We have always defined the word by what white Europeans did, completely discounting what members of other races had done.
Before we denounce Columbus too vehemently, we need to remember that his treatment of the indigenous people was only the first incident of racism perpetrated in America by Europeans and their American descendants. We have oppressed blacks, Hispanics, Middle Easterners, Asians, and of course still indigenous people. So whatever we call the holiday we celebrate today, perhaps its real significance should be as a reminder that we need to change the longstanding pattern of racial discrimination in America.