By Zach Zimmermann
When I think about all the notable dates that randomly pop into my head, I come up with July 4, 1776; July 1, 1867; and October 12, 1492. These dates all represent defining moments in Western-American history: the independence of the USA, the creation of Canada, and Columbus’s “discovery” of the Americas. Now if I think about these dates in the context of my childhood and teenage years, I think about big celebrations and parties with a general feeling of pride, and this was understandable. I come from an upper-middle-class, privileged, white family, therefore the sinister history of the US, Canada, and Columbus never came up at the dinner table. As I grew older, I started to think about not what dates were randomly popping into my head, but rather, why these dates were there. I questioned the pride I felt on these dates, I questioned the meaning of these dates, and I questioned what I had been taught about these dates. Pretty soon, July 4, 1776; July 1, 1867; and October 12, 1492 came to represent something completely different for me. These dates no longer represented pride and patriotism. They came to represent colonialism and lies.
Not coincidentally, this article was released on October 12th, or as it’s popularly known, Columbus Day or La Fiesta Nacional de España if you’re Spanish. Columbus Day is an American holiday that celebrates Christopher Columbus’s “discovery” of the Americas. Now, let us stop for a second and let me highlight two problems that lie in the previous sentences. The first problem is that October 12th, as I said, is popularly known as Columbus Day. It is not as widely known, but Indigenous Peoples Day is also on October 12th. The second problem is the word celebrate. To celebrate implies the recognition of a positive event that occurred in the past. Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the Americas was not positive. In the words of a Spanish friar who witnessed Columbus’s acts: “They forced their way into native settlements, slaughtering everyone they found there, including, small children, old men, pregnant women, and even women who had just given birth.” There is no conceivable way you can misconstrue this passage into a positive light. To bring this together, we are celebrating an objectively horrible event while disregarding a day that celebrates the beauty of Indigenous culture. This seems counterintuitive and irreconcilable, no?
It is very important to recognize however that myself and the vast majority of IE’s students and staff would not be in the position we are in now without Christopher Columbus. Columbus’s actions were a catalyst in the future development of the US, Canada, and Europe. Just as Columbus’s actions were objectively horrible, they were also objectively significant in world history. To reconcile Columbus Day, one cannot simply abolish the day altogether and forget this history never happened. To use an example from Spain, look at the outcome of El Pacto de Olvido after Franco’s regime. We cannot erase history. We have to learn and improve from history.
What we can do to reconcile days such as Columbus Day is to clearly redraw the distinction between celebrating and remembering. Conflicts surrounding colonial holidays stem from the blurring of this distinction, therefore, in order to have a constructive dialogue on the subject of colonial holidays, it is paramount that this distinction remains clear. Unlike celebrating, remembering implies the awareness of past events and their implications. Organizing theatrical and elaborate parades is not remembering. Spending millions of taxpayers dollars to construct magnificent and heroic statues of colonial figures in the middle of cities is not remembering. Making these colonial holidays synonymous with patriotism, pride, and loyalty is not remembering. This is overtly celebrating. How then do we delve into the remembering side of the distinction? Columbus Day should be a time to educate ourselves on the true history of colonizers. It should be a time to remember the actions and sacrifices it took to reach our current reality. It should be a time to recognize that our privilege is at the expense of hundreds of years of pain. It should be a day where we right the wrongs of our ancestors. It should be a time where instead of celebrating colonialism, we celebrate the culture and achievements of Indigenous people despite many setbacks. Columbus Day should be a time to remember not celebrate.
Am I saying that excessive patriotism is strictly forbidden? At its current interpretation, yes. Our nationalistic, self-centred interpretation of patriotism is essentially beneficial to the perpetrator. Claiming to be patriotic doesn’t stay in blindly waving your flag and scowling anyone who criticizes your nation. To be patriotic is also recognizing what can be improved within your nation and striving to make your nation a better place for everyone.
This vision of a reconciled October 12th is most definitely idealistic, but I also believe that it is more beneficial to everyone, settler and indigenous folk alike. It is also important to note that simply reconciling one date will not solve the larger problems of structural racism, oppression of racial minorities, and white superiority. There are many more dates that need to be reconciled from July 4th, 1776 to July 1st, 1867 to November 8th, 2016.
October 12th, 1492 is only one branch of the intricate tree of history.