They came. Descending upon our cityscapes and backcountry fields in strange vessels, we received the first encounter with scientific wonder. They donned exotic garments and spoke in alien tongues. Equipped with unknown instruments and tools, they sought to draw resources from our farms and our waters. No man among us had ever encountered beings such as Them.

The more They observed, the more They desired. Then came the wars. The disease. The enslavement. The famine. They turned weapons against us that we could not fairly repel. They communicated diseases to our people, for which our bodies had no defense. They sucked dry our waters and ate whole our farmlands, as more and more of Them descended upon us. Their hunger was insatiable.

They promised peace, injected us with foreign intoxicants, and forced us into signing away our homes. Over time, They conducted social “experiments,” taking our children from their beds to “assimilate” them into their own culture, never to know the embrace of their parents, or culture again. They dissolved our sovereignty. They disparaged our culture with brutish mockeries. They bastardized our religion with cheap movies and road-side gift shops. For centuries, we have endured abject suffering at their hands.

And each year, They celebrate the first among them to make contact with our people.

Is the above account fact, or fiction? For many Americans today, these accounts probably seem like they belong on the back of a Stephen King novel or an M. Night Shyamalan film. But what if you took a moment to really think about the “story” above, and what it would mean to actually live through such an experience? While almost everyone would argue it farfetched, what if those horrors were to manifest themselves in our society tomorrow?

Forget imagining for a minute, and reconsider: Does this story sound eerily familiar? Is there something about which you’ve once learned, and you’re now forgetting? Something you’ve subconsciously pushed away, detached from your daily reality? Or, are you consciously aware of this story’s very real, very bloody roots?

For the more than 3 million Native American citizens living in the United States, this story is more than an uncomfortable narrative; it’s a history they do not have the luxury of forgetting. It’s the history of their ancestors, the history of the Americas, and the history of this country, in particular. It’s a history of pain, of suffering, of loss and depravation, and it’s the living history of people who continue to endure the legacies of racism and disenfranchisement. But what’s forgotten far too often, is that it’s our history, collectively.

That is why when we stand together – as a state and as a country – and each year honor the central figure associated with the “discovery” of the Americas, Christopher Columbus, we affect a great moral injury. What message does it send to those who celebrate and live in a culture that was targeted and persecuted by this man for extinction? What do we stand to gain by honoring a tradition steeped in bloodshed and atrocity? What falsehoods are we perpetuating when we pretend that Columbus Day honors the “discovery” of our nation, without at least considering the great cost and loss suffered by those who had been living in the Americas for thousands of years prior to his arrival?

It’s salt in the wound.

For the vast majority of Americans, Columbus Day is a day to which they look forward. It’s a day off. A much needed reprieve. For students, it promises a long weekend, a much-welcomed mental break at the beginning of the school year. But for nearly all Native people it’s a solemn reminder of the great cost at which our present existence has come. It’s an annual reminder that systems of historic power and control have not yet died. After all, the namesake of the holiday wrote freely in his diaries about the peaceful nature of the Tai?no (the first Native people he encountered) and how “easily” they might be enslaved. While the rest of us celebrate a day to watch Monday night football or get some extra yard work in before the first frost, Native people are forced to consider the weighty reality of this nation’s history.

So where does that leave us as a society? Does it even matter? Should we do away with Columbus Day in its entirety? The answer, surprisingly, is “no.”

While painful in its present form, Columbus Day has the capacity to serve as a day of reflection to honor the deeply rich and enduring culture of Native Americans, as well as the ways in which Native culture is blazing social and environmental paths in the 21st century. Clearing this national holiday from American calendars would be a mistake. Instead, centuries of injustice and misconception about the merits of Columbus’ journey (reminder: he never even set foot in North America) should be confronted by observing “Indigenous Peoples Day” or “Native Americans Day.”

Honoring Native people and culture in place of Columbus isn’t a cure-all. What observance of this day does do is properly refocus the spirit of the holiday. It creates something of utility from which we can stand together as a nation, state, and city and honor the traditions of a people who have called these lands home since time immemorial. It also provides an opportunity to honor the contemporary achievements of Native people, that mainstream culture would do well to adopt.

Perhaps the greatest benefit, as with most things, may be in educating our children. Honoring Native people with a national holiday would communicate an indelible message to children, regardless of their heritage. While no one would advocate for educating children about the graphic horrors of colonialism in America, there exists no value in actively perpetuating falsehoods about Columbus, and his “contributions” to American history.

Locally, such a movement would also underscore the nation’s first Truth and Reconciliation Commission focusing on restorative efforts to mend the broken relationship between the Wabanaki people and Maine State Child Welfare Services. It would also highlight environmental and conservation leadership that has been at tribal stewardship for centuries and which is becoming increasingly necessary in an age of globalism and climate change.

For many Americans, Columbus Day is barely a blip on the radar of day-to-day life. But for those who take pride in Native American culture and heritage, it begets sorrow. If that’s the case, what do we as a nation, state, or city stand to lose by moving forward, and re-appropriating the second Monday of each October? Surely, it is “unpleasant” or “painful” for contemporary, non-Native Americans to reflect on this history, as feeling of shame, regret, or helplessness might abound. Some might ask what the utility is in dredging up this solemn history. But the question should be: how do we move forward? Columbus is long gone, and his importance in history has been overstated for far too long. Let’s refocus this day on something that matters – on people who matter. It’s time to let Columbus die with history.

Joe Gousse is a resident of Westbrook and a third-year student at the University of Maine School of Law.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.