By SUZANNE DOWNING
MUST READ ALASKA HAS A READING LIST
Columbus Day — Monday — is when we won’t be able to bank or visit our favorite federal bureaucrats.
Thanks a lot, Christopher Columbus.
The feds will close in honor of an explorer who did not actually discover the Americas so much as he bumped into some inhabited islands and lands already filled with people, some of whom had developed complicated cultures, languages, and even had a written record.
Leaving aside the unheralded accomplishments of Leif Ericsson and Polynesian explorers, readers know that Columbus Day is marked by sales fit for the bank accounts of the federal workforce. No one else marks the day but banks, which follow the feds.
In Alaska, Gov. Bill Walker went trendy a couple of years ago and signed a proclamation changing the recognition to “Indigenous People’s Day,” in honor of the folks roaming and abiding here long before Columbus made landfall.
Except that Christopher Columbus never made landfall in North America. He landed on Hispaniola, where today two countries coexist: Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
Columbus made four trips, beginning in 1492 with the three ships we know as the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria.
The brutish Italian navigator explored the Central and South American coasts. His explorations were historic for a Spanish kingdom that celebrated exploration and expansion.
As with many of his time, Columbus was not a benevolent ruler of the islands he governed. In fact, Spain brought him up on cruelty charges and he lost his post when it became known what he was up to in the New World.
Columbus was, by today’s standards, a monster. But so was Genghis Khan and his Mongols, and Uganda’s Idi Amin, centuries later. So are the Taliban and Isis.
History is replete with monsters not worth celebrating, but we remember them for a while as we pass along the lore of our time on earth.
Former Gov. Bill Walker wrote, “Alaska is built upon the homelands and communities of the Indigenous Peoples of this region, without whom the building of the state would not be possible.”
Walker said in his word-salad proclamation that 16 percent of Alaskans have indigenous heritage, and that “the State opposes systematic racism toward Indigenous Peoples of Alaska or any Alaskans of any origin and promotes policies and practices that reflect the experiences of Indigenous Peoples, ensure greater access and opportunity, and honor our nation’s indigenous roots, history.”
There’s no consensus on what the “experiences of indigenous people” means, but tribes of the Pacific Northwest also engaged in slave trading and ownership, like Columbus did on Hispaniola. Tlingits were known to trade their daughters for blankets. Chief Sealth (Seattle), a legendary warrior and slave owner, wiped out the Chimakum tribe near Port Townsend around 1847. That was genocide.
History is full of inconvenient truths, but this one is unavoidable: The Americas were not a Garden of Equal Opportunity Eden before European stock arrived. When politicians pretend that pre-contact tribes were more noble than the European stock that followed, they bow to myth and legend and try to bend race politics into proclamations.
The historical record doesn’t support celebrating Columbus Day, nor does it support Indigenous People’s Day as a passive-aggressive snub of Columbus’ European ilk.
Better to call it “Historical Accuracy Day,” a day when all Americans can wag their fingers at each other as they correct the timeline of mankind’s hustle and bustle of discovery.
Must Read Alaska’s reading list for Columbus Day:
- Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest, by Mathew Restall.
- Conquering Paradise: Christopher Columbus and the Columbian Legacy, by Kirkpatrick Sale
- 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, by Charles Mann
- 1493: Uncovering the World Columbus Created, also by Charles Mann
(This column first appeared in Must Read Alaska in 2017.)