Opinion

Should we even have a Columbus Day?

Though the holiday has been used to teach American ideals, we need to remember that to many native Americans, Columbus symbolizes slavery.

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Oct. 12 is the important anniversary of the opening of the Americas to settlers, and one that merits celebration, but by commemorating it as Columbus Day, Americans stand to ignore part of the past that deserves to be remembered.

While the holiday has been used to teach ideals of patriotism, and Christopher Columbus has been used as a symbol of an immigrant's right to citizenship, the other side to the discovery of the new country is death and destruction. To many native Americans, Columbus symbolizes slavery.

In order to bridge this gap, perhaps the government should take a cue from Hawaii and call the day Discover's Day?

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Though it's been more than 500 years since Columbus found the Americas, consider the story of Mary Black Bonnet.

She was born a Sicangu Lakota on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota in the early 1970s, when some 80 percent of the approximately 9,000 residents were unemployed and almost 50 percent were alcoholics, including her mother.

Mary's father left when she was 2 months old, eventually leading to the court-ordered placement of her and her sister in a foster home.

There, white foster parents adopted them, and until the time she was 10 years old, she was raped repeatedly.

The abuse mercifully stopped when the adoptive parents divorced, but she had to contend with resultant nightmares and suicidal inclinations.

Therapy helped Ms. Bonnet recover, as did her eventual return to Rosebud and reunion with her birth father. But her struggle as a member of one of the smallest ethnic minorities in America is mirrored in the experiences of native Americans across the country.

Unemployment is still around 74 percent at Rosebud Reservation. One of every 3 residents there is homeless. More than 95 percent live below federal poverty levels. And the number of deaths from alcohol-related problems is reported to be three times more than that of the rest of the US population.

It was Columbus who opened the way for European colonizers, whose wars and infectious diseases wiped out massive numbers of native Americans. They set the standard by exiling the rest to rural, out-of-the-way reservations.

The "reservation" solution did not work very well back then, nor does it work very well today, as Bonnet's case shows.

Granted, Columbus was not the sole precipitator of the displacement and suffering imposed on native Americans for the next half millennium, and certainly his navigational, scientific, and sheer physical accomplishment, which rank him with or above such figures as Marco Polo, Ferdinand Magellan, and Lewis and Clark, cannot be denied.

Yet Columbus was more than just an inevitable cog in history's colonial machine. His own words survive in his letters as proof of his dehumanization of the indigenous people, whom he considered the property of Queen Isabella. He enslaved many of the Tiano Indians, while the rest he subjected to war and destruction.

Often, the first step to healing is recognition of a problem. By changing the name of this holiday we will draw attention to the plight of the native Americans, not so they can be pitied, but in order that their situation, which began with Columbus, can be addressed.

Perhaps replacing Columbus Day with "Discover's Day" would stretch Americans to recognize where we have come from. It would also give a nod not only to what led to the influx of ideas and people on which this nation was founded, but to some abuses that the United States must remember to avoid. In so doing, we gain intellectual honesty.

Another solution would be to replace the adulation for Columbus with a native American hero. Crazy Horse's monument is already in place near Mount Rushmore.

Chief Joseph might be more politically acceptable, though. The great savior of the Nez Perce tribe had the wisdom of President Lincoln and the inclination toward nonviolence of Martin Luther King. His recorded reflections are an inspiration for all patriots:

"Let me be a free man, free to travel, free to stop, free to work, free to trade where I choose, free to choose my own teachers, free to follow the religion of my fathers, free to talk, think, and act for myself – and I will obey every law or submit to the penalty."

What's more American than that?

The prospect of swapping Columbus for an Indian chief, in one fell swoop, may be a hard sell, especially in view of the paucity of political influence wielded by American Indians.

But the first step, and one everyone can embrace right now, is to honor the truth by terminating the celebration of Christopher Columbus, while commemorating the importance of this historic day in all its implications. It might just help with the healing of all America.

David McGrath is emeritus professor of English and of Native American Literature at College of DuPage.

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