I’d have been surprised if Marty Two Bulls had let the day go by unremarked, and he’s on point in calling out the idea that there was some time in our post-Columbian history that was truly “great.”
America is a work in progress and after more than 500 years it’s appropriate to point out how little progress you will make if you aren’t willing to take a good hard look at where you are and where you’ve been and where you claim to have been heading.
At some point in college, we were assigned to read Rousseau’s “Discourse on the Origins of Inequality” and Ruth Benedict’s “Patterns of Culture,” in concert, which was a worthwhile exercise in contrasting philosophical contemplation with actual field work.
Rousseau came out looking naive, though it’s appropriate to point out that Hobbes’ view of life in nature being nasty, brutish and short is equally a matter of philosophy and not anthropology.
And in any case, the fact is that, when we study history, we always seem to end up with what the philosopher Stephen Stills described as people “singing songs and they’re carrying signs, mostly say ‘Hooray for our side.'”
Which brings us to Paul Fell‘s cartoon on the holiday, which evokes not Buffalo Springfield but, rather, Firesign Theater’s promise of “a fair for all, and no fair to anybody.”
It seems that every culture has its own self-aggrandizing history. It’s far more annoying when it’s being proclaimed by someone at the top of the heap, but it’s no less mythological at any level.
Columbus Day is a little odd in that respect, because Washington Irving’s less-than-accurate biography of the man was a promotion of American Exceptionalism despite the fact that Columbus was not only not an American but was Italian and Catholic, which cast him well outside of the American ideal in the era when he was most praised.
And, as this article outlines, it’s surprising how much actual history we knew at the time.
We may not have discovered archaeological evidence yet, but we certainly knew the Vikings had been here, and, far more to the point, we had the writings of Bartolomé_de_las_Casas as a contemporaneous record of the horrors visited upon the natives of the New World by the explorers from the Old.
Not all the tragic impacts of our coming together were intentional villainies: It was unfortunate that Europeans had kept livestock in their homes while New World natives had not, but the consequential introduction of heretofore unknown and dread diseases was completely accidental.
Nor, for that matter, was unspeakably cruel and brutal behavior towards outsiders something Europeans introduced to the New World.
We were just better at it.
After all, Isabella may have financed Columbus’s voyages, but she had other hobbies as well, all geared towards improving the world by eliminating the “other,” or, at least, persuading it to give up its “otherness.”
It’s unfortunate that “American History” is taught as “the virus that spread from Plymouth Rock,” because, while English-speaking people were doing this and that back East, Spanish-speaking people were also making history in what eventually would be the United States.
The idea that what happened in the pueblos and on the rancheros was not history until “we” started moving out there represents a type of ‘white privilege” that wouldn’t be that hard to address.
This doesn’t mean going the opposite direction and teach a different brand of ideological history.
Simply teach history chronologically instead of in order of land acquisition and, as Loewen counsels, don’t try to make it into a triumphalist morality play.
Teach about the people.
Teach, for instance in this case, about how we pledged the Lakota sufficient land for their lifestyle, then proposed putting a railroad through the middle of it.
And don’t pretend that they were primitive, superstitious savages who were afraid of the Iron Horse — teach how they were canny politicians who knew damn well that it was the first step in breaking the treaty.
And that they were right.
I think teaching the history of our people — all our people — would be a better answer than swapping “Indigenous People’s Day” for “Columbus Day.”
Changing the name of the holiday feels a bit like hosting free screenings of “Dances with Wolves.”
Maybe we could have “Make America Great Day.” Skip the mythological “Again” and focus on living up to our own hype.
It could be like Earth Day, only, instead of going out and picking up litter, we’d make it a day for studying and honoring our treaty obligations, investigating land claims and extending a hand to those who need it, both native and immigrant.
Of course, the first step is to get out our awls so that we can make sure the Great Orange Father in Washington can hear us.