Thoughts About Columbus Day
By Miryam Ehrlich Williamson
I can’t explain this, but from the time I was a child I’ve had mixed feelings about Columbus Day. I don’t know many indigenous people, or at least I don’t know many who identify themselves as such. But I remember thinking, the first time a teacher said Columbus discovered America, “What do you mean, he discovered it? People were already living here. How could he discover something other people had already discovered?”
I was five or six, already smart enough to keep my mouth shut, but either too smart or not smart enough — I can’t figure out which — to swallow whole the stuff people told me, even if they were adults, and teachers, at that.
They made me memorize a poem that began “In fourteen hundred ninety two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue…” I forget the rest, thank heaven.
Once I heard someone say, “How much better it would have been if, instead of Columbus landing on Plymouth Rock, Plymouth Rock had landed on Columbus.” Maybe that was the first Native American I ever heard speak, but probably not. It sounds more like something a stand-up comic would say, followed by lots of laughter.
Of course, Columbus didn’t land on Plymouth Rock. Neither did the Pilgrims. The only fact here is that people from Western Europe found their way to an inhabited land, brought whiskey and gunpowder and viruses and bacteria to which the people who lived here had no resistance and you know the rest of the story.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad I live here. But I’m not glad about some of the things that led up to my living here. And today, on October 12, the day that used to be designated as Columbus Day until somebody decided to turn it into an excuse for a three-day weekend, I need to say this out loud: “I’m sorry we white people couldn’t have said please and thank you and may I?’”
Maybe you’ll feel some of what I feel if you watch this 1-minute video, or visit the site it comes from.
I’m not alone in this, either. In Berkeley, California, today is Indigenous People’s Day. In South Dakota it’s Native American Day. Maybe we could make it happen nationally.