Over the last few months, America has been heavily discussing ways in which to preserve and honor our history. The issue of taking down or leaving Confederate statues sparked protests, counter-protests and social media fights and consumed media headlines. However, this process of revision has started to shift the ever-changing narrative Americans use in describing our history, whether it be statues or national holidays. Changing Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day would help correct, but not erase the way in which we teach and view that era of history.
Orono’s town council voted on Sept. 11 to observe Indigenous Peoples’ Day in place of Columbus Day. This is the third Maine community to make the switch and follows the change that started in 1992 with communities in various states such as California, Colorado, Oregon, Kansas, Washington, Minnesota, Vermont, Maine and New York.
Sitting in a classroom in first grade, the story of American discovery is a heroic one. It is about a man who embarks on an adventure to travel halfway across the world and discover “new” land. There is no talk of bloodshed or violence. This of course serves a purpose in a room of small children – but as an educated nation, we cannot ignore it. The celebration of Columbus Day emphasizes how a man successfully voyaged across an ocean and landed on territory not owned by Europeans, but deemphasizes the mass genocide of innocent people.
America is a coalition of cultures, histories and people. Acceptance of fault when fault is due is an important step to becoming better citizens who are educated and aware of the struggles and hardships that formed those very cultures, histories and people. Christopher Columbus forced indigenous people into slavery, introduced diseases that devastated the native population, forced conversion to Christianity and brutally murdered those who attempted to protest his immoral reign. These are not the qualities of a man who should be nationally recognized and celebrated. Instead, we should honor those whose ancestors were forced to endure this pain and suffering.
Columbus is a part of American history that we cannot and should not change. However, the tone in which we speak of him and his actions is something that can be altered to respect those whose history was on the side of bloodshed. Indigenous Peoples’ Day will not erase Columbus’ name from the history books. It won’t change the rhyme “In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” But it will provide adequate and appropriate space for recognition of the part of history that often gets ignored, because we don’t want to talk about it.
Orono made an appropriate choice in the decision to shift the celebration from Columbus to indigenous people. If small communities continue to make these changes, eventually this correction may rise to the national level, where we could see an historically accurate shift in the narrative that surrounds American history, and pay our proper respects to those who have been affected by it.