Time to say something controversial. Are you ready? Here it goes:
Happy Columbus Day.
Those three words have become quite the flash point. Earlier this year, Gov. Janet Mills and the Maine Legislature changed the law designating the second Monday in October from “Columbus Day” to “Indigenous Peoples Day.” However, federal law maintains the old name.
The whole political dispute is a study in contrast. The day was first celebrated in earnest in the 1800s. Even then, it was strongly opposed. However, this opposition was not based on Columbus’ actions in the “New World,” but rather what he represented.
Columbus was heralded as an example of the immigrant history of our nation, and the ability of foreigners to come to American shores and make our nation stronger. Who opposed this? The so-called nativist “Know-Nothings” and their allies in the Ku Klux Klan. For them, Columbus represented two bad things. First, he was Italian; from their racial — and racist — perspective, such geographic background was inferior to the Germanic and Anglo-Saxon bloodlines of the majority.
Second, and even worse, he was Catholic. “Rum, Romanism, and rebellion” was the rallying cry in 1884 for partisans of Maine’s own James G. Blaine and his run for the presidency. They didn’t like Catholics mucking around in their Protestant nation. “Columbus Day” became the countervailing celebration of Italian immigrants’ “Americanism,” despite their “Romanism.”
In fact, at the time, anti-Catholicism ran rampant in the United States. One of the largest Klan rallies in the country occurred in Brownville, Maine, and focused its ire on Catholics. And in some ways, those prejudices haven’t abated. John F. Kennedy famously had to distance himself from his faith in order to win the White House. And President Barack Obama found himself fighting a bunch of nuns — the Little Sisters of the Poor — over the Affordable Care Act’s requirements. (He lost.)
With this history, it is interesting to see the juxtaposition in perspectives. Many of those advocating for changing the holiday’s name also assail the current presidential administration over its efforts to constrain immigration. While advocating for a more open system to enable more people to come to this country, they simultaneously rally against a day created to celebrate — in part — immigrants.
None of this is to say that Columbus was some lily-white hero. There are plenty of reasons to cast a critical eye on his popular legend. And, unlike some modern revisionist history with other historical figures, Columbus was controversial in his own day. He was sent back to Spain in chains to face the judgment of the royal court on an array of charges.
And none of this is to suggest that Native Americans — Indigenous People — do not deserve their own form of recognition. The colonial period throughout the continent saw bloodshed between European settlers and the tribes, while the young United States would often seize their land and force them into reservations. In fact, in 1999, the Maine state government would take children from Native families without signed court orders.
However, much of this detail is getting lost. Replacing “Columbus Day” with “Indigenous Peoples Day” creates a firestorm. Advocates of the latter credibly argue their efforts are not intended to be anti-immigrant or anti-Italian. That is almost certainly true. But the second Monday in October has no particular significance to Native Americans; it was explicitly chosen as a rebuke of the “violent history of colonization” as personified by Columbus.
Changing “Columbus Day” has some credible arguments behind it. Setting aside whether we should have a day for every type of hyphenated-American, there are plenty of Italian voyagers who could take the seat of honor without the direct personal baggage. For example, Amerigo Vespucci, namesake of our continents.
Yet setting “Indigenous Peoples Day” and “Columbus Day” as oppositive alternatives — as Maine and federal law now do — is a recipe for nothing but conflict. It clouds the positive aspects of each holiday and undermines our ability to rationally discuss the good and bad of our shared history. There were plenty of people on the American continents before Europeans showed up, but we are a nation of immigrants and stronger when we hew to that heritage.
Monday — whatever you call it — is a day off for many Mainers. Let’s try to find a good name for it that we can all agree upon.