If There is Columbus Day, Then When is Hitler Day?

Amid grumblings about mid-terms and SAT’s, the second week of October also brings complaints about Andover’s disregard for Columbus Day. Although the celebration of Columbus Day is an American tradition, the school’s position in not recognizing it is undoubtedly correct. Surely we all would not be where we are today if not for Christopher Columbus. It is because of Columbus that European nations were able to establish colonies in the New World and that the United States were ultimately established. But, what most do not realize is the cost at which expansion into the New World came. When Columbus came to America, which he believed to be India, he decimated almost an entire population of Native Americans and enslaved the rest. On October 12, 1492, Columbus and his merry band of murderers and alleged rapists arrived on the shore of an island he called San Salvador (although the exact island he actually landed on is disputed). This is the day that we celebrate. In the common American identity, Columbus Day embodies hope and prosperity, and exemplifies the notion of “the land of opportunity.” To Native Americans, however, who had inhabited the land for thousands of years, the day represents the turning point of their civilizations; it marks the beginning of the end. Soon after Columbus’ landing, the Natives of “San Salvador” and most of the islands of the Caribbean were promptly and mercilessly enslaved in a fruitless search for gold if they had not already succumbed to diseases brought from the East or killed off unwarrantedly by Columbus’ men. By the end of it all, it’s estimated that the population of indigenous Americans, which was originally 12 million, fell by nearly 90%. So rather than crediting him with discovering the New World, it would probably be more accurate to say that he blew up what was there and made a New World. Originally, the celebration Columbus Day was less about praising the man than about celebrating his Italian heritage. Italians in New York and California began celebrating the holiday in the late 19th century, although President Benjamin Harrison did recognize it on the tercentennial of October 12 in 1792. However, the Columbus Day that I grew up with was about coloring pictures of a sailboat and a supposedly great man, a man of courage and persistence (stick-to-it-iveness). Not once did any teacher ever mention that millions of people died because of him. More and more, institutions are breaking the convention of observing Columbus Day. Nearly all of our peer schools do not celebrate Columbus Day, with the exception of Milton, which of late has probably been particularly careful in deciding what conventions to break or not to break. The choice of Andover and its peer schools is nonetheless commendable, as all they see nothing worthy of celebration in Columbus Day. Not surprisingly, states with large indigenous populations, like South Dakota, Nevada, and Minnesota, do not recognize Columbus Day either (South Dakota instead has “Native American Day.”) It is time that the rest of the states and the federal government follow suit in realizing that Columbus Day represents a day of genocide as much as it represents a day of discovery. As the National Council of the Churches of Christ puts it, “What represented newness of freedom, hope and opportunity for some was the occasion for oppression, degradation and genocide for others.” While, as Americans, it is important to celebrate our nation and our existence, we should be careful in choosing what we celebrate. To not celebrate our discovery and existence simply would not be the American way, but in the case of Columbus, it is only right that we make an exception.