October 12 2009
It's Columbus Day! Did you know that? In Canada, it's Thanksgiving. Why? Well, probably not for Columbus, based on my hundreds of seconds of research, but more because it's a harvest celebration and, well, you have to harvest earlier in Canada.
So, what about Columbus Day? I've been taught two things about Columbus: he discovered America. And that he didn't discover America.
That if Columbus hadn't sailed in 1492, Europeans would have never come to the New World, and never had the benefits of being in the New World. And that if Columbus hadn't sailed in 1492, Europeans would never have come to the New World and destroyed the happy, idyllic life of indigenous people.
Usually, these arguments come from different people, with a tinge of bitterness between them. It's as if we can't recognize that certain things, in fact most things, carry benefits and drawbacks. Why can we not realize that, first of all, Columbus was the first in the “Age of Discovery” to come to the New World, and his coming spawned the European interest in America. No, he wasn't the first. There were Native Americans or Indians or Indigenous People Groups or whatever term you find either historically accurate or politically correct. The Vikings had been to Canada, and possibly farther. It's possible, though hard to prove, that others had crossed both the Atlantic and Pacific to the Americas. Yet no one was able to start a settlement until Columbus.
Did that have negative consequences? Certainly for some it did. Some in the New World, some in the Old World. However, don't buy the Disney-esque idyllic life in Native America at the time. Were there some advanced cultures? Yes, there were. Were there tragedies due to misunderstanding and abuses? Certainly there were. I think that, had technology been equal, the entire history would be very different, but that's another blog post.
My point is that we can, and should, recognize both the good and the bad in historical events. Columbus didn't come to the New World with evil intent. He didn't even have intent to show up.
And what can you do about it anyway? Pack up all people of European ancestry and ship us back to Europe?
We have to learn to take the good and the bad, to realize that what benefits some may hurt others, and that actions and decisions will have unintended, and sometimes unforeseen, consequences. That others might have done similar things to us before, and that it's ok to learn history with shaky heroes, and it's even ok to let the shakiness come later, instead of teaching kindergarteners all the problems with Columbus!
All that to say, while there are serious ills in our society today, our history really isn't any different from most other nations. There were wars and peacetimes, there were great actions and despicable actions, there were heroes and losers, there were victories which required there to be defeated parties. It's life. It's not some cut and dried cartoon.
We don't have to polarize everything. Really. So let Columbus discover America. Let's remember that, had Native Americans held tighter immigration laws, we wouldn't be here. Let's realize that the past is just that, past, and it's time to build a future from where we are now.