I realize that many people think I’m ungrateful, or that I'm part of an effort to ruin Maine for white people. As I urge Maine to do and be better on sensitive and important issues (as I do also for people and organizations for which I have affection and connection — a perfectly natural and reasonable thing), what often gets lost are the times I mention what I love about the state. I do say nice things and recognize good things, even if it doesn’t feel like it (to some of you).
So, let me take a moment to thank Portland (and Bangor, Orono, and Brunswick) for designating the second Monday in October as Indigenous Peoples’ Day, thus kicking Christopher Columbus to the curb. Each city formally made the decision last week, following what Belfast first did in 2015.
(Now, cue angry emotions from people with a tenuous grasp of history and/or an unhealthy attachment to tyrannical and cruel Italians. I wonder, though: Do the folks who keep lifting up Columbus also dig Benito Mussolini?)
As I’ve pointed out before, this entire nation was primarily built upon two rather nasty things: the enslavement of Black people and the stealing of land from Native Americans. The displacement of Native Americans was accompanied by genocide, which is why the original people who lived here before white people did the massive land-grab number somewhere around one percent of the U.S. population — far smaller than the roughly 13 percent Black people account for.
Basically, Native Americans and enslaved Africans (and their descendants) got totally different deals, but pretty much on par with each other for heinous treatment. One was seen as a pest and impediment to white progress; the other was seen as an important resource/tool for building wealth — neither was, strictly speaking, considered quite human. In my mind, given the raw deal Native Americans got, the very least we can do is honor them with a day and take it away from the man who was a key part of introducing colonization, exploitation, and victimization by Europeans to what we call the Americas.
So, I applaud the communities in Maine that have made this move. However — isn’t there always a “but” in these kinds of things? — there was this from the Portland Press Herald's report last week:
Look, I’m as sympathetic to any group wanting to celebrate its legitimate racial and/or ethnic heritage as anyone. I certainly want my own recognized. But if folks want to celebrate Italians, how about we call for an Italian Heritage Day; the arguments to keep Columbus’s name on the second Monday in October are ridiculous. The arguments to honor his victims instead are stronger.
Columbus didn’t discover the Americas; the Vikings did that — he merely was the devil who told Europe Here’s the route you take to exploit a whole new group of people. He maintained that he had found the east coast of Asia, even after folks like Amerigo Vespucci headed in the same direction as Columbus and theorized it was a whole new continent. Columbus didn’t even prove the Earth is round — scholars mostly already accepted that notion long before Columbus. Even sailors were substantially on board with the round Earth thing by Columbus’s time.
No, Columbus was a cruel man who massacred indigenous people in the Americas, ruled over them harshly, enslaved them and justified it via his religion. He was a clueless navigator and a thickheaded scoundrel. I’m pretty sure Italian-Americans can do better than that for a poster boy and I encourage them to do so. Or, better yet, honor their heritage more generally.
For now, though, after far too many generations of Columbus Day, I’m happy to toast Indigenous Peoples’ Day this year and hope that this recognition can be a step toward less marginalization of Native Americans.
Now if we can just get the state on board. The legislature did receive a bill this year to make Indigenous Peoples’ Day a state holiday, but it didn’t become law. States as overwhelmingly white as Vermont, Alaska, Oregon and South Dakota already have stopped recognizing Columbus Day; let’s join that bandwagon.
Read more of Shay Stewart-Bouley's work at www.blackgirlinmaine.com
- Published in DiverseCity