I missed Columbus Day again this year. I had to go online to find out if it is still a recognized event. I’ll bet there are still come places in the U. S. that celebrate Columbus Day, possibly places where there a lot of people who still think of themselves as Italian in some significant way.
We do “celebrate” Indigenous People’s Day on the same day when we used to celebrate Columbus Day. Although, as you can tell from the quotation marks I put around the verb, I don’t think we celebrate it. The Biden administration has declared October 10 to be Indigenous People’s Day.
The whole thing has raised some questions in my mind, some serious, some trivial. I’ll let you decide which are which.
Question 1. Is Christopher Columbus an indigenous person? Answer: Of course. He was born to a “people” who had been living in the area we now call Italy for a long time. Everyone is indigenous to somewhere. I see the value of using North America as the context. We can presume the area when we declare some people’s to be indigenous and others not. But no people have lived at any particular place forever. In most cases there is a before and an after. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the time we use to determine indigenousness were the arrival of Christopher Columbus? I think I would like that.
Question 2. What is the best way to celebrate indigenous peoples? I really don’t know. I have a general kind of answer that will have to do for this year. We need to assign them a part in “our national story.” I am not really sure what part. “Innocent Victim” doesn’t seem promising. “Nature Loving Mentors” isn’t much better. It needs to be a part that will add something of value—by that, I mean, something of value to the collectivity as a whole—to the narrative and to increase the likelihood that it will continue to be told.
“The American Story” seems to have become complicated. It has become morally ambivalent and perilous. Some will say, I suppose, that that is just what American history is. Bright parts and dark parts; people and events to be proud of and people to be ashamed of. I suppose. But a story isn’t a history. We need a story. No one tells a history. Even back in my childhood, when there were plenty of Columbus Day Sales, there were no Indigenous Peoples Sales. And there won’t be.
Is there really a way to approach this new conflict? Sure. I recommend, as an example, Stan Freberg’s treatment of the initial confrontation between Columbus and “an Indian Chief.” The Chief speaks “broken English,” of course, but he is wise and he is witty. Someone like this could be put in the story as a standing notice that the people who were already here had something to offer.
It is hard to say just what the chief offers in Freberg’s narrative, but it is clear that he knows what Columbus knows, that they are working off the same script, and that they share the same presuppositions. You might way that will not take us very far, but we aren’t going very far anyway. Maybe it’s worth a try. Here are some examples.
Columbus asks what “you people” eat. The Chief says, “Berries, herbs, natural fruits and organically grown vegetables” (he pronounces it veg-e-tab-eles: four distinct syllables) Columbus says that’s what he thought. That’s why he has come to this country, to build an Italian restaurant. Give people some real food: spaghetti, starch, cholesterol.
He wonders, though, if there is room for a parking lot. “You kidding?” the Chief responds. “Whole country is parking lot.”
They finish the skit by having Columbus tell the Chief he is a little short of the cash he would need to buy a property for the restaurant, but if the Chief will direct him to the nearest bank, he will get a check cashed. “You out of luck today,” says the Chief, “Bank closed.”
“Oh….why?” asks Columbus, drawing it out in a way that means to everyone who knows this kind of humor, “OK, hit me with it.” The Chief says, “Columbus Day.” There is a long pause and finally “Columbus” says, “We going out on that joke?” The Chief responds, “No, we do reprise of song, that help.” Then, after some thought, they both add, “But not much…”
My view is that Freberg’s picture of the first meeting between Columbus and the indigenous peoples has a lot to recommend it. Not a lot of facts, of course, but a narrative with some value in it.