The Columbus Day/Indigenous Peoples’ Day Debate – The One Lesson We All Must Learn

Columbus Day/Indigenous Peoples’ Day (IPD) 2022 has passed. It is clear from the standard discussion about these holidays in the media that we still haven’t learned much useful from either observance or reached much agreement on the history and meaning of the holidays. While neither observance is inherently or necessarily political, it seems politics is the primary motivation behind the majority of the discussion. It doesn’t need to be this way. While overt Leftists and Conservative-oriented people/groups will inevitably clash and seek to frame the history to fit their narratives, there is one lesson that everyone ought to take away from it and apply in the present.

The Most Important Lesson

Whatever you feel about the history of events, we are in a better position now to both preserve that which we all agree is necessary to preserve, and prevent that which must be prevented. We must act in accord with certain objectively-derived principles, not violate the rights of others, and expect others to do the same – but we must always be ready to defend against those who do not reciprocate such behaviors. There are universal moral truths that ought to govern our behavior as rational actors and provide a framework for determining fundamental inalienable human rights. Creating a society and political entity that recognizes this and is capable of defending it from violation is not only a necessity, but a duty. The history of Columbus’ actions in the “New World” are part of what made the eventual birth of the United States of America and the Liberal World Order that accompanied its rise possible. But as actors here and now, we must remember that a good “end” does not justify the means. From this position we are now in, we can judge the moral appropriateness and the failures of influential figures of the past without forgetting the vastly different circumstances of the times. We can also see how certain violations were able to occur and work to ensure the same violations do not happen to the societal/political systems we create to protect our own rights. If we do this we can continue to work to promote a more just world. If we do not learn from the failures of indigenous societies to protect their interests from outsiders, we risk the same happening to us. If we fail to learn from some of the immoral means employed by Columbus and the colonial powers of the times (and beyond), we risk repeating this behavior and becoming something horrible in the future.

Let’s survey the Pro-Columbus Day and Anti-Columbus Day perspectives and see if we cannot identify common points to which we can apply the lesson above for practical purposes.

Columbus Day/Indigenous Peoples’ Day

Internet post typical of the anti-Columbus Day, pro-IPD perspective.

In general, IPD is promoted as a direct challenge to Columbus Day by people on the Left. Most support for IPD is complemented with a harsh critique of Columbus Day and for them it would not do to simply move the observance to another day. Ending official observation of Columbus Day is the point. On the other side, most support for Columbus Day does not depend on denouncing IPD, but some Columbus Day defenders recognize IPD promotion in lieu of Columbus Day as a means to the end of certain self-interested groups that wish to denounce Columbus and by extension the systems that are based on values and actions they see him representing. Regarding our lesson, such a dichotomy in perception is problematic, as is the politicization of this history. Columbus Day and Indigenous Peoples’ Day do not need to be mutually exclusive.

Typical meme that highlights the draw of IPD, but misses the point of Columbus’ contribution and its celebration

Pro-Columbus Day Perspectives

Many Pro-Columbus Day posts mix together imagery of Columbus’ voyage with US imagery, highlighting the position that his voyage had enormous impact in the “New World” and beyond.

A survey of popular Pro-Columbus Day articles on the internet reveals they are primarily focused on three things; 1. Recognizing certain virtues of Columbus, 2. The impact Columbus’ voyage had on future events, 3. Countering criticism. In recognizing certain virtues of the man, the focus is on how they are representative of those values that made “the West” what it is today. This includes recognizing the utility of an independent spirit and steadfast determination, honoring faith in God, and conquering the unknown in the name of progress and advancement. What his voyages ultimately led to is obviously recognized from a historical “winners” perspective and this is usually acknowledged, albeit with increased consideration from critics highlighting other perspectives on the voyage. Most Pro-Columbus Day articles acknowledge in some way Columbus’ imperfections and alleged immoral misdeeds, however there seems to be some disagreement on the veracity of some of the sources these alleged misdeeds are based upon and their extent. These articles often also suggest it is unfair to pin much of what occurred after Columbus and elsewhere in the New World on Columbus. There is a clear political lean with this perspective towards Republicans in the US, as Conservative/Republican leaning news, groups, and politicians openly promote it as part of their messaging.

For politicians running for office, depicting Columbus Day (or IPD) a certain way signals to voters their core beliefs.

The following are some quotes from various Pro-Columbus Day articles that represent the overall viewpoint regarding the continued observation of the holiday and its relation to Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

“There is not only a great deal to celebrate in Columbus, but the man embodied a range of attributes that are necessary to solving many of our contemporary problems and even saving our country from further decline and collapse resulting from group think, corruption and abuse of power….Seen from the big picture, Columbus Day is worth keeping and honoring for the simple reason that it celebrates beliefs and qualities of character that are foundational to America. It could even be said that Columbus Day is the holiday that commemorates the human character, attitudes and choice of action that made the other American holidays possible.”

Why Columbus Day is Worth Defending and Celebrating – Scott S. Powell

“Tearing down statues of Columbus and replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day—as several states and hundreds of municipalities have done—won’t save lives, black or otherwise. And it would be an insult to Italian-American families who raised money to honor Columbus with these monuments. We live in a culture that glorifies victimhood, but none of the Italian-Americans I know chooses to embrace this role. While we understand that America isn’t perfect, we’re grateful that our ancestors got on those boats to cross the ocean, just as Columbus did centuries before.”

Don’t Defend Christopher Columbus – Celebrate Him – Dave Seminara

“Let those who are fond of blaming and finding fault, while they sit safely at home, ask, ‘Why did you not do thus and so?’” wrote Christopher Columbus in his Lettera Rarissima. “I wish they were on this voyage; I well believe that another voyage of a different kind awaits them, or our faith is naught.” The award-winning historian Samuel Eliot Morison, in his book The Great Explorers, translates Columbus’s parting shot into modern parlance: “In other words, to hell with them!…As Morison pointed out, Columbus “had his flaws and his defects, but they were largely the defects of the qualities that made him great — his indomitable will, his superb faith in God and in his own mission.” That will and faith make him a man worthy of this, the day on which we honor him.”

A Defense of Christopher Columbus on Columbus Day – John Hirschauer

“Columbus has become the scapegoat for those who try to rewrite the history of America and the United States, which is why many events that took place several centuries later are attributed to him. Spain’s contribution to America in general, and to the United States in particular, goes far beyond the figure of Columbus and is worth vindicating it today because due to its entire cultural, social, linguistic, institutional, and demographic legacy.”

5 Reasons to Defend Christopher Columbus – The Hispanic Council

“We should not tear down the statutes and memory of Christopher Columbus on the grounds that some people in the New World committed heinous acts, or on the grounds that, with little evidence, Francisco de Bobadilla, a man with suspect motivations, accused Christopher Columbus of brutality as a governor–especially since that “brutality” was manifested in Columbus’ execution of several Spaniards for their mistreatment of the Indians. Bartolome de las Casas – Columbus’ contemporary and renowned “Defender of the Indians” –defended both the explorer’s motives and his character.”…”Columbus Day is a day for us to remember that bold and courageous voyage in 1492 that lead to the first sustained contact between two very different worlds. It is a day to remember the many good things that have come out of that contact, such as the founding of the United States, the first lasting democratic-republic. It is also a day to remember our failings as a country, such as the trail of tears and the forced removal and re-education of native children in the twentieth century–episodes centuries after Columbus that the explorer neither caused nor condoned.”

Blaming Columbus Misses the Lessons of History – Patrick Mason
Regarding colonialism, some Conservatives reject the notion that past injustices cancel out all the good that came out of past actions out of our control, especially in areas lacking Rule of Law systems and definable, defensible property right.

Anti-Columbus Day Perspectives

Typical meme highlighting the notion that Columbus Day is misrepresented and misused while indigenous perspectives are ignored.

Upon reviewing anti-Columbus Day articles, one will find they are without exception critical of Columbus’ actions (and the actions of those that came after him), highlighting their negative impact on the indigenous peoples of the lands they colonized. These articles also typically criticize the manner in which American children are taught this history; emphasizing how trivial facts are highlighted, Columbus’ virtues and impact are simplified and overly promoted while his immoral acts and the negative impact they had on indigenous peoples are hidden. Indigenous Peoples’ Day is often promoted not as a complimentary holiday to Columbus Day, but as a replacement. The perspective is overwhelmingly shared by Leftists, political Progressives, and most Democrat politicians; most making it a point to indicate support for IPD but not Columbus Day.

What is not said often hits harder than what is said. Typical of Democrat politicians today, Michigan Governor Whitmer makes it a point to honor IPD but not Columbus Day on her social media page (no other posts were made).

Below are some quotes from a survey of Anti-Columbus Day articles on the internet regarding feelings towards the continuation of the holiday, the veneration of Columbus, and Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

“Columbus’ reign of terror is one of the darkest chapters in our history. The REAL question is: Why do we celebrate a holiday in honor of this man? (Take three deep breaths. If you’re like me, your stomach is heaving at this point. I’m sorry. Sometimes the truth hurts. That said, I’d like to turn in a more positive direction.) Call me crazy, but I think holidays ought to honor people who are worthy of our admiration, true heroes who are positive role models for our children. If we’re looking for heroes we can truly admire, I’d like to offer a few candidates. Foremost among them are school kids.”

Columbus Day? True Legacy: Cruelty and Slavery – Eric Kasum

“Students are taught that Columbus is the one who discovered the Americas, sailing across the Atlantic in his three ships: The Niña, Pinta and Santa Maria. The Italian explorer is even celebrated every October during a federal holiday named after him. But the man credited for discovering the “New World” has long been considered a contentious figure in US history for his treatment of the indigenous communities he encountered and for his role in the violent colonization at their expense.”

Why Christopher Columbus Wasn’t the Hero We Learned About in School – Alicia Lee

“When we speak of “indigenous people” or “Native Americans,” we frequently do so as if they were a monolith. However, this is a fallacy, analogous to referring to “Europeans” or “Asians” as a specific group. There are numerous European and Asian cultures, and few would argue that there are not meaningful differences between Russians and Spaniards or Italians and Norwegians, between Han Chinese and Tamils or Koreans and the Javanese in Indonesia. Similarly, there are massive differences between the Taínos who Columbus encountered and the Wampanoag encountered by the English Pilgrims who founded Plymouth Colony, or between the Aztec Empire destroyed by Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés and the Inca Empire which once stretched from modern-day Colombia and Peru to Chile and Argentina. Learning about the great historical contributions of this diverse network of cultures is far more interesting than reading about another egomaniacal despot.”

The Truth About Columbus Day – Explained – Matthew Rozsa

“Enough already. Especially now, when the Black Lives Matter movement prompts us to look deeply into each nook and cranny of social life to ask whether our practices affirm the worth of every human being, it’s time to rethink Columbus, and to abandon the holiday that celebrates his crimes. More cities — and school districts — ought to follow the example of Berkeley, Minneapolis, and Seattle, which have scrapped Columbus Day in favor of Indigenous Peoples’ Day — a day to commemorate the resistance and resilience of Indigenous peoples throughout the Americas, and not just in a long-ago past, but today.”

Time to Abolish Columbus Day – Bill Bigelow, Zinn Education Project

“But the real Columbus—not the constructed myth—should resonate in contemporary America. Columbus set off to find Asia, landed in the Caribbean, and, until his death, insisted in the face of overwhelming evidence that it really was Asia. Rather than celebrate what he did achieve, admit that fortune had something to do with his success, or recognize the horrors he wrought, he unapologetically defended himself and blamed any suggestion of failure or incompetence on others. Americans of the 18th century rescued the then-obscure Columbus from the history of European imperial conquest for political reasons unique to that era. They could not have known how perfect a cautionary tale the real Columbus would be for the United States of 2017.”

The Invention of Christopher Columbus, Hero – Ed Burmila
Downplaying traditional narratives and accomplishments of historical figures and promoting direct action against their continued promotion is a typical tactic of the Left.

Applying the Lesson to Common Themes

The Left is often hypocritical with their claims of Conservatives wanting to “ban history,” as they seek to frame and dominate narratives by promoting their worldview over others just as much, if not more, than traditionalists. Aside from extreme elements, most people would agree on the important fundamentals.

On the surface, it seems the two perspectives above are completely incompatible. In some ways they are. But what do proponents of each perspective want? Pro-Columbus Day arguments seek to recognize and preserve that which has led to our present system; a system that will best secure what Columbus Day critics want secured – the fundamental rights of indigenous peoples. Before the current order of world states and international norms, there were no such protections or expectations. Before the United States Constitution and the rights-based, Rule of Law, democratic system it popularized, there was no real redress for such rights violations within states or political entities in accord with true, objectively-derived justice; especially within many indigenous societies. The past is the past and we cannot change it. But we can learn from it, embrace the progress we have made, and work to perfect that which is still problematic in some regards. This means maintaining the Rule of Law, maintaining borders, and maintaining strong defenses while also checking and limiting government domestic power to only that which is necessary, creating mutually-beneficial alliances abroad, and working to promote just policies for advancement of citizens that set an example for emulation elsewhere. All of this is best accomplished within the system we have created, despite its many challenges. We shouldn’t resort to throwing the baby out with the bathwater by destroying our foundations and we shouldn’t pretend the bathwater is completely clean if it is soiled either.

Columbus Day is not likely to be on the top of anyone’s list of favorite holidays. Nevertheless, we ought to at least continue to observe it via reflection on its cultural and academic importance, if not for celebration. Indigenous Peoples’ Day achieves the same status, as much of the “celebration” of it, being on Columbus Day, appears weaponized for politics. This does not negate its inherent value however and there is no harm in recognizing it. Politics aside, the lesson learned from these observances can help fans of each of them achieve their ultimate goals. For that, we ought to appreciate them.

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