Columbus Day celebration calls historical accuracy into question

Next Monday students at Williams College will be going to their classes. Elsewhere, students and workers, by taking the day off, will be unintentionally picking at 500-year old wounds.

Columbus Day, that red-headed stepchild of national holidays, is here again. Representative Ronald Libonati pushed the holiday through Congress in 1963. According to Libonati, “Columbus deserved the honor because his Christian faith gave to him a religious incentive to thwart the piratical activities of the Turkish marauders preying upon the trading ships of the Christian world.” In focusing on a historically unsupported detail, Libonati perpetuated one of many myths surrounding the legend of Columbus.

You’ve heard it. “In fourteen hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.”

After those first lines of that first bit of history that every American schoolchild learns, then maybe we are at impasse.

We can look past numbering years based on the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, referring to this country by the name of a guy who never set foot on it, and the tragicomic use of the term Indian to describe peoples that lived on the opposite side of the globe. But here at Williams, that is where we put our foot down on the Columbus story.

Sort of.

Next Saturday, instead of celebrating Columbus Day, Williams will host a celebration of the indigenous culture and people that the Age of Exploration virtually wiped out.

“The purpose of having a pow-wow here is to introduce Williams students to Native culture, which I don’t think we see a lot of here,” said Liz Hoover ’01, sometime dancer at pow-wows and founder of the Williams event. “The Native student population here is small and not often acknowledged, but even so I think is important the culture be [acknowledged]. As a Mohegan woman was telling me last year, this area has a notorious history of booting out the natives, and she thought it was very fitting that she could return to the place where her ancestors once lived to celebrate her heritage.”

Williams has not turned its back on indigenous issues, but scheduling classes on Columbus Day is the furthest thing from a political statement.

“The question of whether or not Fall Reading Period coincides with Columbus Day is purely based on number of weeks since the beginning of the semester,” says Heather Williams, chair of the Calendar & Scheduling committee. “If the College tried to observe every major national and religious holiday, our calendar would look like Swiss cheese.”

Even without official recognition of the holiday, the significance of Columbus Day and the issues that it brings to the fore does not go ignored on campus.

Never was this more apparent to me than when a fierce debate broke out mysteriously close to my room last year. My opponent proposed a theory he learned from his high school history teacher. The Indians, he said, nearly went extinct because they did not see the writing on the wall – surrender to a superior force or die. I countered with a headlock.

But if you read the natives’ story, surrender and death were really the only two options Columbus gave to his welcoming committee. Upon reaching the shore of any “new” land, Columbus or his lieutenants read to the natives a decree called the Requirement.

After claiming dominion for Spain and the Pope and threatening slavery, rape and total war, the Requirement ended with an ominous warning: “The deaths and injuries that you will receive from here on will be your own fault and not that of his majesty nor of the gentlemen that accompany me.”

While the College is not about to count itself among Columbus Day revisionists, it has left old wounds free to scar.

Those wounds echo in the words of Bartolomé de las Casas, a slaveholding plantation holder turned priest. The first European historian of the Americas, las Casas summarized the Columbus story much differently than our elementary school teachers did.

“What we committed in the Indies stands out among the most unpardonable offenses ever committed against God and mankind,” wrote las Casas in his chronicle, A History of the Indies.

What we committed in honoring the man responsible may be an offense all its own. The fact that Williams does not observe Columbus Day is what we might call good behavior, but it is not something that will go down in history.

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