Monday is Columbus Day, though you may not realize since it’s been demoted from a moderately major holiday like Veterans Day to minor status, the likes of Flag Day.
That was not always the case. In grade school, everybody knew the jingle, “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” And we all knew that his fleet consisted of the Pinta, Niña and the Santa María.
There’s a grandiose oil painting depicting the Italian explorer with his seafaring companions on a Bahamas beach, staking a Spanish flag in the sand while some native folk look on curiously.
I recall being taught that Columbus was looking for a westward trade route to India and, having found brown people on the other side of the Atlantic, figured he found it.
Of course, there were already people groups that had been living there for a really long time.
Yet, Columbus indeed did “discover” the continent — that is, from a European perspective at the time, a people group that ended up naming a world that was new to it after one of its own, Italian mapmaker Amerigo Vespucci.
Columbus also proved any flat-earthers of his day wrong.
But his achievements are disregarded today, after a shift by some cities and states to Indigenous Peoples’ Day in recent decades.
That’s unfortunate and might even be unfair. I’m not sure blame for the wrongs that occurred during the gold rushes and land rushes that followed his explorations can be laid entirely at his door. Maybe the criticism isn’t so much condemning his personal actions as what he represents.
A footnote to Columbus’ 1492 trip in my grade-school textbook mentioned a Scandinavian guy, Leif Erickson, who island-hopped across the North Atlantic around A.D. 1,000 from Iceland, Greenland and on to what is now eastern Canada, appropriately (to the Scandinavians) named Newfoundland. So he “discovered” this continent from his people group’s perspective. Maybe in that 500-year gap, word about Leif didn’t make it to the Iberian peninsula.
One view of indigenous peoples as we know them is that their ancestors wandered from eastern Siberia during the last ice age when sea levels lowered, exposing a Bering Strait land bridge. So like explorers after them, they discovered this continent. Over the following millennia they are said to have spread out southward across pure virgin territory, even to the southern tip of Chile.
There were maybe waves of people from various places who came to and inhabited the continents of the Western world. Who’s to say there weren’t other folks here even earlier?
Some anthropologists hypothesize that other peoples, such as Pacific Islanders, made their way to the Americas via longboats and navigation techniques more advanced than us moderns give them credit for.
Interesting that adherents to the Book of Mormon claim at least spiritual lineage from a lost tribe of Israel they believe lived in upstate New York from before 2,000 B.C.
Others point out curious archeological similarities between the megaliths unearthed in the Americas and Old World building techniques found in Giza, India and Stonehenge — insinuating that ancient Americans may have somehow corresponded internationally.
Some people wandered here to survive. Some people came here to explore or conquer new territory and abundant natural resources. Some came here as religious, political and/or economic refugees. Some people were enslaved and brought here against their will.
As our town gears up for its bicentennial, I imagine we’ll learn about how folks from long ago and various backgrounds interacted. How they got along and how some disagreed. How some people were nice and some weren’t. That’s history.
Ironically, the name Columbia is in fact a derivative of the name Columbus. Maybe we need to change it. Perhaps back to Smithton, but that’s a white guy’s name, too.
Perhaps a historian could find the name of a local indigenous tribe or chief to inspire a new title for our town. It’s unlikely we’ll find consensus on such topics these days.
I wish we could depoliticize history. Can’t we just get the straight story, worts and all? Maybe not, as the implications might challenge our assumptions.
I’ll go out on a limb and claim that Columbus Day is legit, as is Indigenous Peoples’ Day — let’s get the full historical scoop.
Steve Spellman hosts “The Mid-Missouri Freedom Forum” at 5 p.m. every Tuesday on KOPN/89.5 FM.