In Seattle, as in a growing roster of US cities and the states of Alaska, Hawaii, Oregon, and South Dakota, Columbus Day is done. Seattle’s city council has abolished the longstanding holiday, replacing it with something called “Indigenous Peoples’ Day.”
Two cheers and a boo!
On the one hand clapping, I applaud the end of a pernicious set of myths: that Christopher Columbus was the first to reach the Americas, that he “discovered” the so-called New World, that he was the first true naval explorer, and that he was in any sense notable for anything but ruthless ambition.
As Fareed Zakaria observes in his excellent book The Post-American World, nearly a century before Columbus sailed the ocean blue in good old 1492, China sent forth a vast fleet of more than 300 ships to “discover” the nations of Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean. Under General Zheng He, the fleet brought back many treasures, including a giraffe, stolen jewels, and the king of Ceylon, who was forced to apologize to the emperor for inconveniencing his imperial armada. A change of policy in 1433 abruptly ended China’s seafaring days and left the waters of Asia open to “discovery” by Europeans.
But more to the point than priority are the consequences. For the millions of (sorry, can’t avoid the term) pre-Columbian peoples who lived in the Americas, Columbus represented the first taint in a plague that would kill off roughly nine in every ten of them. For the survivors, armed robbery, enslavement, humiliation, and cultural imperialism would follow, and in some respects would continue up the present day. Who could possibly want to celebrate that?
Well, you know the answer: Fox News, of course. In a 2010 opinion piece, titled “Let’s Take Back Columbus Day,” Thomas A. Bowden argues: “This modern view of Columbus represents an unjust attack upon both our country and the civilization that made it possible.”
Modern? Actually, thinking Americans have long recognized the injustice and stupidity of celebrating Columbus. Here’s an excerpt from an 1895 satirical masterpiece called The Idiot, by John Kendrick Bangs:
Columbus is an immensely overrated man. If you come down to it, what did he do? He went out to sea in a ship and sailed for three months, and when he least expected it ran slam-bang up against the Western Hemisphere. …He was bound to hit it sooner or later.
…Pictures of him are printed in the newspapers and magazines. A dozen different varieties of portraits of him are printed on postage-stamps as big as circus posters—and all for what? Because he discovered a land that millions of Indians had known about for centuries. On the other hand, when Columbus goes back to Spain several of the native Americans trust their precious lives to his old tubs. One of these savages must have been the first American to discover Europe. Where are the statues of the Indian who discovered Europe? Where are the postage-stamps showing how he looked on the day when Europe first struck his vision?
…Don’t talk Columbus to me unless you want to prove that luck is the greatest factor of success.
Remember, this was published in 1895. If anything, the passage proves two things. First, you don’t have to be politically correct or contemporarily educated to recognize the absurdity of lauding Columbus. Second, Bangs remained a man of his times, prone to easy contempt for the “savage.” White Americans (myself included) can, should, and must rise above that. But the way forward is not to leap from the stereotype of the “savage” to the myth of the “noble savage.”
Enter “Indigenous Peoples’ Day.” That’s where the other hand falls silent. I mean disrespect toward no one, but “indigenous” refers to no one in particular. It is, rather, an academic catch-all for preindustrial societies that were knocked over by the technologically and economically more powerful West.
Recently, “indigenous” has acquired some unfortunate trappings. In 2007, reacting to the continuing abuse and degradation of many of the descendants of those conquered societies, the United Nations passed the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which is now known by the unfortunate acronym UNDRIP.
Seattle should know what it’s getting into: the philosophical stamp the UN placed on “indigenous peoples” is a mess. UNDRIP fails to clearly define indigenous people, implies that indigenous group rights trump national law, and most egregiously fails to clearly set individual rights above collective rights. Here’s where that myth of nobility lurks. Just because Europeans inflicted great suffering and humiliation on conquered peoples around the globe does not mean that the pre-existing cultures were kind, humane, and peaceful. By and large, they were not.
Slavery, robbery, rape, mutilation, and war—these are universals of historical human culture. About this, there can be no doubt because cultures arise from human nature, and human nature springs from the ruthless dictates of evolution.
Yet culture has proven to be an excellent remedy. More specifically, communication, trust, ideas, commerce, and institutions have gradually allowed us to make humanistic progress over the centuries—to set agreed upon rules constraining selfish behavior, and to contain our inevitable conflicts within culturally constructed frameworks of cooperation and resolution. That is truly something to marvel at.
But we run into a paradox here: reverence for culture leads to collective cultural rights, and these in turn create individual wrongs. A few instances:
- A culture defines a subset as “untouchable” and relegates them to the worst jobs and disallows marriage outside their caste.
- A culture practices discrimination, hostility, and even violence against the physically deformed or disabled, believing them to have bad karma.
- A group practices female genital mutilation, claiming it as a cultural tradition and/or religious practice.
None of these is fanciful or exaggerated. To uphold them as indigenous rights, we would condone the very kind of mistreatment UNDRIP seeks to end. The paradox arises from misplacing our response to lingering historical wrongs.
Rights inhere in people. People have hopes, fears, and feelings; culture is nothing more than an abstraction of shared beliefs, behaviors, and artifacts. Humanists have good reason to oppose the primacy of cultural rights. Religious law is a cultural construct; what’s more, it’s embedded in every “indigenous” culture. You cannot consistently support cultural rights and oppose the imposition of religious law.
Don’t get me wrong: I love celebrations of culture. In fact, I organize one annually for the immigrants and refugees I work with. But to name a holiday Indigenous Peoples’ Day is to invoke a set of identity politics that, however well meaning, is not truly progressive. It not only stokes the resentments of Italian Americans and Fox News viewers, but also subtly demeans the descendants of conquered societies.
It suggests that the proper place for them is in their historical cultures, living close to nature, free of all the trappings of our materialistic, technologically dense society. My friend Marcel Ngoko Djiokap might well resent such pigeonholing. Marcel is indigenous to West Africa—Cameroon, to be exact—yet he is an accomplished theoretical physicist who studies nature on a chalkboard.
Look back through history, and you find boundless suffering. We are the lucky ones, for few of those reading these words will have lost a child or a mother in childbirth, starved, or been taken prisoner in a raid. I’m not denying present day woes or injustices, but they pale in comparison with the past.
Rather than Columbus Day or Indigenous Peoples’ Day, we should celebrate the fortitude of all our forebears who endured so much hardship that we might have a chance to live better. Myself, I’d love to see an “Ancestors’ Day,” (from Ardi to our parents!), but if we must have a nationalist holiday, let it be for “Early Americans” of all stripes.