Chances are that you didn’t even notice the passing of a minor federal holiday in the US a few weeks ago, unless it happened to affect you personally. Some people had the day off. Some schools were closed. There was no mail delivery.
Officially, October 12 is Columbus Day, a holiday commemorating the landing of Columbus in the new world. Since Columbus was Italian, Italian-Americans have seized the day as an opportunity to manifest pride of origin. Because G happens to work for the Italian Government, he has the day off every year.
g also had the day off. School, however, was not closed to celebrate the triumph of Columbus’ discovery of America but rather to mark Indigenous People’s Day, an effort to recognize the profound affects this event had on the indigenous peoples for whom this world was anything but ‘new’. As someone who spends more time than is healthy fretting about the exploitation of peoples and resources throughout the world, I truly appreciate the important message in this rebranding. But I think that we are missing something by simply reducing the discussion to historical winners and losers.
With a little help from my imagination I can imagine myself in Columbus’ shoes, peering out at the vast blue waters of the Mediterranean and contemplating an epic voyage into completely unknown territory, a few simple wooden vessels at the mercy of the winds – no fossil fuels, no satellite information or gps, no communication equipment or rescue helicopters, not even a stash of MREs. And I see myself high-tailing it back to Isabella to promptly return her money. Bad idea after all.
But Columbus set sail. I picture him as a kind of latter day Richard Branson, all bravado and oversized ambition, a testament to a deep human drive to explore and expand. And I have a difficult time setting aside my respect for this side of the human condition, even if it so often has negative consequences. I also have a hard time ignoring the fact that my community, the same one that first designated October 12 as Indigenous People’s Day, is characterized by a push toward new frontiers that bears a much stronger resemblance to Cristoforo than to the Indigenous Peoples he encountered.
I say this not to shame my neighbors but rather to hold all of us to a higher standard. In reality, the exploitation of peoples and resources continues unabated to this day, aided by ever greater use of fossil fuels and technological sophistication. But most of us living in the developed world occupy a hazy place in between, both exploiters and, increasing, exploited.
What I am proposing is that this day might serve as a very appropriate opportunity to recognize this uncomfortable position and therefore open it up to the kind of scrutiny that every day life doesn’t easily permit. If it sounds a bit unlikely that an official holiday in the world’s dominant power would be set aside to contemplate the pitfalls of dominance, I have to agree. But then again, I might find it rather unlikely that a small group of humans would navigate vast stretches of ocean inside simple wooden scaffolding with bedsheets.