Skip to main content

Still ‘celebrating’ Columbus

Being a foreigner in the U.S., I was intrigued to see how Native American cultures would be celebrated in the District of Columbia, a state whose terminology couldn’t be more related to the hero of the day: Christopher Columbus.

In New York City, more than 35,000 people gathered on 5th Avenue to celebrate the world’s largest Italian-American celebration. Italian-American? In remembrance of the 518th anniversary of European settlement on Native American soil, I expected a different prefix before the word “American.”

Looking at pictures of young Italians throwing their pizza paste in the air like professional pizzaiolos under their parents’ proud eyes, I started to think that Columbus Day was, maybe, a way to remember European settlement as a “boon to all mankind.” The arrival of Columbus in the Americas had brought two worlds in permanent contact, allowing new exchanges of ideas between different yet equally rich histories and cultures.

I still have so much difficulty accepting Oct. 12 as a national celebration of social cohesion. One in four Native Americans live under the poverty line. A significant number of tribal homes still lack complete plumbing, modern water and sanitation facilities. American Indians represent one of the poorest communities in the U.S. with an unemployment rate of 22 percent, twice the national average. At the international level, the United States is one of the four countries who refused to sign the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Under Columbus Day, this is the philosophy that we are embracing:

“They [American Indians] do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. ... They would make fine servants. .... With 50 men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.” (Excerpt from the logbook Columbus kept during his voyage).

In Latin America, Oct. 12 is now El Dia de la Resistencia Indigena (the Day of Indigenous Resistance) and El Dia de las Culturas (The Day of Cultures). Eight years ago, the city of Berkeley, Calif., replaced Columbus Day with Indigenous People’s Day. At the state level, Hawaii, South Dakota and Nevada do not recognize Columbus Day. But in the 48 remaining states, eating pizza and shopping the extended-weekend sales still seem to be the most adequate way to acknowledge the beauty and diversity of America.

– Marion Desmurger

Washington, D.C.