Editorial: The Columbus-Indigenous Peoples debate

  • City crews help guide the Christopher Columbus Statue in Grant Park as it's being removed by a crane, Friday, July 24, 2020. | Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

    City crews help guide the Christopher Columbus Statue in Grant Park as it's being removed by a crane, Friday, July 24, 2020. | Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

The Daily Herald Editorial Board
Posted10/9/2021 2:00 PM

We understand the impulse to eliminate or change the Columbus Day holiday, which is observed with relatively quiet attention Monday.

Despite all the fuss, ironically, while it is a holiday that used to be the stuff of myth and legend, it has become one of those holidays in recent years that goes by almost without notice outside of the protests on one hand and the intense support it tends to receive in the Italian American community on the other.


The day continues to be a federal holiday. On Friday, President Joe Biden signed a proclamation declaring Indigenous Peoples Day, which some would have replace Columbus Day, as a simultaneous holiday. Two holidays apparently side by side.

Illinis already had designated the last Monday of September to commemorate Indigenous people. Of course, how much attention did Sept. 27 actually get?

In our youth, the Columbus Day had little to do with the man and everything to do with Columbus the explorer and the intrepid mission he accomplished.

We know much more about him now. We know much more about the values he espoused and the atrocities he allowed.

It's understandable that we wouldn't want to celebrate those.

But it's also understandable that Italian Americans, in particular, appreciate the heritage he represents. We sympathize with their indignation about efforts to remove him from the observance, especially considering how in the early days of their immigration to the United States, Italians suffered discrimination and abuse.

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Meanwhile, here are a few truths that often are get lost in the passions of the debate.

No, Columbus did not "discover" America. People lived on this continent, so obviously it already had been discovered. But his voyage was courageous and it did, as author Charles C. Mann accurately noted in The New York Times, revolutionize the ecologies, economies and political systems of Europe, Asia, Africa and of course, the Americas.

"Columbus is so important," Mann said. "The historical changes that stem from European reach into the Americas are just incalculably large."

How can that be denied? And how can it not be observed?

And while it is fair to challenge the Columbus myth based on a more accurate assessment of who he was, it is not fair to blame Columbus for whatever wrongs followed the opening he created to the New World -- any more than it would be fair to blame John Glenn for the social media ills that have followed the technological revolutions that were dependent on our voyages into space.

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