Monday, October 09, 2006

Columbus Day


oday, elementary, junior and senior high schools in the DC area are closed. Today, postsecondary schools are closed. Today, the banks are closed. Today, the post office is closed. Indeed, most government offices are closed, as Columbus Day is recognized as a federal holiday.

But I have a class to teach.

While it bothers me that my students and I have class when virtually everyone else has a day off, it might be worthwhile to consider that Columbus Day--initially celebrated by Italian Americans to stir pride in their heritage--celebrates Christopher Columbus and his discovery of the Americas, and this is seen by some as a celebration of the beginning of the end for many of the indigenous people of the Americas.

Certainly, Europeans brought animals that altered the ecosystem of the Americas. And the disease. Millions of native Americans died from diseases to which they had no resistance, such as smallpox and measles. And let us not forget gonorrhea and alcoholism... although some Native Americans did not need the Europeans to tell them about the effects of peyote.

So celebrating the coming of the Europeans can be viewed negatively by Native Americans and their friends. It is ironic, however, that Christopher Columbus should become the poster boy for all the ills delivered by the Europeans because his celebrated status is misleading.

Columbus was Italian, but actually came to America under the sponsorship of Spain. If "discover" is defined by the finding of something no one else knows about, then Columbus did not discover America, as Native Americans already lived here. Columbus was not even the first European to reach the Americas, as that honor goes to Northern Europeans--Lief Erikson is often given the nod as the figure representing these hardy sailors/pirates.

Actually, Columbus shouldn't even be credited with the disocvery of a "new land". There are accounts that suggest Columbus believed until his death that he had landed in India (or a part of it)--hence the name for islands in the Caribbean--West Indies--and the misplaced referent for Native Americans--Indians.

Further, we do not refer to our country as the United States of Columbia and call ourselves Columbians. Our self-referent is based on the name given by a German cartographer, Martin Waldseemuller, who dubbed these lands after Amerigo Vespucci--Americus being the Latin rendition of the Italian, Amerigo. This merchant sailed and charted much of the coast north and south of the area "discovered" by Columbus and came to the conclusion that the land mass represented by this coast was much too vast to be a part of India, that it was actually a separate and different land mass. For Waldseemuller, presumably, the revelation of "what" was discovered--a new land--outweighed the fact that it had been misunderstood and misrepresented by the first "discoverer".

So, yeah, maybe we shouldn't be celebrating this second day of October, Columbus Day. But it still bugs me that I have to go to work while the rest of America is resting. Hrgrmph!


senorrrita said...

Don't worry, you're not alone. I had to go to work today as well.

frank N. said...

or for that matter the chinese were here before colombus according to the book 1421 by Menzies. Very interesting read.