Flavin’s Corner

Considering Columbus

Witchi tai tai, tu me rai, hoah nika, hoah nika
Hey hey, hey hey, noah
When I get this feeling runnin’ round my head
Makes me feel glad that I’m not dead.
"Witchi Tai To," from Everything Is Everything featuring Chris Hills, Jim Pepper, Vanguard Records, 1969.

Columbus Day, or International Indigenous Peoples Day (a designation not yet widely used), is unlike other holidays.  It’s not about friends and family getting together, no religious services are involved, Hallmark Cards doesn’t go out of its way to mark the event, special dinners or cookouts are rare, and other than Sons of Italy parades in a few major cities and a three day weekend for some, Columbus Day comes and goes without much hoopla.  Well, unless you’re Native American, that is, who generally believe Columbus initiated the invasion of the New World and regard the day with various degrees of disdain.  Considering Columbus one day a year works for most Americans, but others treat the man as a problematic itch that needs scratching.  Being wary of anyone who shouts out “Happy Columbus Day!” would probably be sound advice.

Columbus, attributed to Sebastiano del Piombo
(Sebastiano Luciani, ca. 1485-1547).

While I understand the historical import Native Americans attach to Columbus, as his discovery of America ended their isolation from the rest of the world, that isolation would have undoubtedly ended due the efforts of another explorer a couple of years or decades later.  Someone had to be first, and though that distinction is still debated by American diffusionists (those who believe in inter-societal contacts between the Old and New worlds before Columbus), the contention occasionally concerns the man, yet always involves the effects of his discovery.  The world became larger and smaller at the same time.  When is trivial and why is the immutable fact of hominid dispersal–humans love to travel.  Columbus is credited with putting together the first Caribbean cruise and that’s a feat worthy of appreciation.

Debate over the Spanish Cristóbal Colón and the Italian Christofero Colombo has now expanded to include a Jewish Columbus (Sails of Hope: The Secret Mission of Christopher Columbus, by Simon Wiesenthal, New York: Macmillan, 1973).  Evidential minutiae are essential nutrients in the diets of amateur anthropologists, armchair archaeologists, and historical revisionists.  While some are concerned with whether Columbus was “first” to discover America, if he had a map, where he may have sailed to as a youth, or any of many legitimate avenues of investigation, the primary acknowledgment of Columbus concerns his four voyages of discovery and his seeking to unite East and West and Old and New.  It was never a matter of us and them.  Borders are dotted lines on maps and differences between one man (or woman) and another disappear with laughter.  Of all Mom Terra’s creatures, we alone laugh.  That some laugh alone is a small price for humanity to pay for the ability to laugh together.

It’s almost funny, in a sardonic reflex, to offer an opinion about Columbus at this time in America’s history, as we might very well be at war any day and more terrorist attacks are statistically probable.  We so need to laugh, to love, to live, especially in these dangerous times.  I question Native Americans who are currently lashing out against America.  Now is not a good time.  “Noble Savage,” Huxley’s Brave New World, and New Age warrior/priests aside, the majority of Americans regard Native Americans as fellow Americans.  Native Americans vote, pay taxes, and participate in government.  If there’s a problem (and, of course, there are many) with relations and rights, these should be addressed specifically, rather than lumped together with anti-American sentiment.  I’m disappointed with a certain section of the current Native American response to the crisis we’re all a part of.  Hell, I’m angry.  I feel betrayed.

Let’s face it, with effort we may better understand the past, but we can never change it.  We must respect the past, yet not be enslaved by it.  The injustices against Native Americans must always be remembered, but rational response must be commensurate with impassioned requital.  It’s always the case that loudmouths are most often heard complaining about the past and the quiet majority are content to go about the business of today and tomorrow.  In a free society we support loudmouths and the right to complain.  So, go ahead and complain about Columbus, complain about America, or just complain about anything.  This is America, the land of the free and home to a lot of errors and awful situations.  Perfection exists only in theology, certain Marvel comic-books published in the 1960s, and the eyes of someone who loves you.  I guess Native Americans are no different than other Americans; we’re all human and make mistakes.

So, what’s important?  Doing research for this column I happened across a webpage by a second grade teacher from New Jersey who states: “Christopher Columbus left Italy on August 13, 1492...”  I e-mailed the teacher and told her to change her webpage.  She wrote back that I was mean and mentioned the events of September 11, 2001.  I replied that Columbus sailed from Spain and left the exact departure date for her to figure out.  She countered with something about my not being human.  Maybe I am mean, however I don’t believe so.  I attended second grade in New Jersey as a child (though, as part of an Army family, only for a couple of months, and then went to a school outside of Chicago, and then finished the year in Munich, Germany) and feel disappointed by inaccurate information put forth by a paid educator.  I acknowledge that perhaps my position could be interpreted as insensitive.  It is.  Italy?

For several years there have been intense protests to the Sons of Italy’s Columbus Day Parade in Denver, CO.  I’m told that AIM and other Native American groups will not protest this year out of respect for the nation’s current crisis.  This touches me.  Loudmouths be damned; there is still good in the world!  I’m still angry, but then who isn’t?

We’ll continue to debate history, struggle to do what’s right, and do the best we can.  The commemoration of International Indigenous Peoples Day seems essential, but the road ahead is probably rocky and beset with those who believe change is something that jingles in one’s pocket.  Navigating between conflicting ideas, opinions, and goals is essential for change.  Columbus was a hell of a navigator and look where it got him.  Still, we change because we will whether we want to or not.  The winds won’t stop blowing.


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