In defense of Columbus Day

Earlier this week, the Bangor City Council decided that Columbus Day, a federally recognized holiday, should in fact be Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

Despite protestations from the council that it wasn’t trying to “replace” Columbus Day (which they can’t do anyway, it being a federal holiday), the choice to recognize and celebrate the newly designated Indigenous Peoples’ Day on the day we recognize Christopher Columbus is a pretty clear signal what the city council’s intentions are.

“I think it’s a very symbolic but impactful gesture to make this change and to recognize indigenous people,” said Penobscot Nation Tribal Council member Maulian Dana Smith.

You will note the word “change” in that statement. The focus of this move was rather clearly to lay aside Columbus Day, in favor of Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

Burnurwurbskek Singers of the Penobscot Indian Nation perform during a celebration of the 100th anniversary of Acadia National Park. Ashley L. Conti | BDN

Now let me be clear, there is absolutely nothing wrong with a celebration and recognition of indigenous people with a specific, thoughtful holiday devoted to their history, complete with a full examination of the brutalities and atrocities committed by European settlers in the new world, which killed and displaced millions.

Indeed, there is also nothing wrong with attempting to provide a more full picture of Columbus, whose bold explorations also came with a rather obvious dark side of oppression, slavery and death.

But it is absurd to attempt to wash away recognition of iconic figures of not only American history, but world history, for their perceived sins to a contemporary audience.

This is obviously rather en vogue now, with the removal of statues celebrating confederate icons. But things are getting out of hand.

Recently, students and faculty at the University of Virginia, an institute of “higher learning” founded by Thomas Jefferson, took exception to the university president quoting their founder Jefferson in an email, because, of course, he was a slave owner.

A slave owner yes, but one who despised the institution of slavery and attempted to insert bold, fiery language condemning it and the King who perpetuated it, into the Declaration of Independence.

Are we soon arriving at a point where it would be appropriate to sit in judgment of Abraham Lincoln, the man most chiefly responsible for the abolition of slavery, because he was a prisoner of racial attitudes of the 1860s?

I think we are dangerously close to that. This is the madness of the world we live in today.

People with the benefit of hindsight and the arc of changing attitudes on any number of issues can look back and judge people from history as though they had the benefit of the same perspective. But they didn’t.

Ironically, the very people clamoring for an antiseptic, politically correct destruction of every revered historical figure are undoubtedly in for a rude awakening when the same standard is eventually applied to the objects of their affection.

Many champions of Indigenous Peoples’ Day across the country may be shocked to learn that among several native tribes, the practice of slavery was common, including the ritual torture and sacrifice of war captives. Many tribes were also warlike, and could easily be accused of being just as — if not more — bloodthirsty than the Europeans.

Should any of that take away from the honor and recognition inherent of Indigenous Peoples’ Day? No, it should not.

I believe such a day should exist, and it should be a moment to remember and reflect on the amazing contributions to America, both before the European settlers and after, made by native peoples.

But should Columbus Day be replaced? Should we tear down yet another icon and wash away his historical importance?

Columbus was born in Genoa, Italy, to a working-class family, and apprenticed as a sailor when he was 10 years old. He was self-taught, and incredibly clever, and after spending time in the sea trades, he hit upon the idea of outmaneuvering his Turkish competition by sailing west to reach the East Indies.

He was stubborn and determined, even as he was rejected repeatedly in his search for support for such a journey for years. Eventually, he convinced the Spanish Crown to sponsor him, and he set off on a completely unprecedented journey. That journey ended up opening the new world, and completely reshaping world history.

He was also a slaver and a murderer, who opened up an entire continent for European imperial dreams, setting the stage for the destruction of countless native peoples.

So let’s leave Columbus Day right where it is, and let’s talk about what a complicated, but amazing historical figure he was.

And let’s celebrate the equally complex history of indigenous peoples’ the week after.

Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.