Flags of the United States of America waved high above yesterday’s ceremony. On the second Monday of October, the National Christopher Columbus Association, in coordination with the National Park Service, celebrated “522 Years of Discovery” by honoring Christopher Columbus at Columbus Plaza in front of Union Station in Washington, D.C.
In his welcome address, Supervisory Park Ranger Jamie Keller explained that he honored Christopher Columbus because Columbus “went for it.” Other speakers from the diplomatic corps of Italy, Spain, and the Bahamas, followed and reiterated in some form that Columbus obviously did not “discover America, but…”
Another speaker attempted to walk this same politically correct line by again mentioning the troubled past, but he then quoted Pope Francis, who just last month excused the United States for 500 years of genocidal history when he told a joint session of Congress “…it is difficult to judge the past by the criteria of the present.”
Even President Obama, whose official proclamation was read at this ceremony, joined in this act of politically correct acrobatics, noting that Columbus was “doubted by many of his potential patrons... [but] seized the moment and pursued what he knew to be possible.”
He referenced the troubled history the United States has with indigenous peoples, but went on to say:
“In the years since Columbus’s time, the legacy of early explorers has carried on in the wide eyes of aspiring young dreamers and doers, eager to make their own journeys and to continue reaching for the unknown and unlocking new potential.”
Such rhetoric made me wonder if the politically correct rules for 2015 prohibited the use of the word discovery in regards to Columbus Day.
But let’s not kid ourselves: Discovery is what this holiday is all about. Discovery is what explains the existence of this “nation of immigrants.” Discovery is what justifies the dehumanization and genocide of indigenous peoples. Discovery is even what is referenced as the foundation for land titles by the Supreme Court of the United States of America.
In 1823, two men of European descent were in litigation over a single piece of land. One bought it from an indigenous tribe and the other bought it from the government. They wanted to know who legally owned it. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, which stated:
“As they [European colonizing nations] were all in pursuit of nearly the same object, it was necessary, in order to avoid conflicting settlements, and consequent war with each other, to establish a principle, which all should acknowledge as the law by which the right of acquisition, which they all asserted, should be regulated as between themselves. This principle was, that discovery gave title to the government by whose subjects, or by whose authority, it was made, against all other European governments, which title might be consummated by possession.”
US Supreme Court - Johnson v. M'Intosh (1823)
The court went on to state that essentially, indigenous peoples only had the right of occupancy to the land, while Europeans had the right of discovery, and therefore true title to the land. This ruling, along with a few others, established a case precedent for land titles. A precedent that was referenced by SCOTUS as recently as 2005 (City of Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation of NY).
The challenge the United States is facing today is that because it believes the myth of its own exceptionalism, all it can do is celebrate. There is no public space for admitting its wrongs and mourning its actions. But that is probably what needs to happen.
October 12, 1492 marks a day when the nations of Europe and the early settlers to America got it completely wrong. And instead of desperately searching for something else to celebrate, let’s just call a spade a spade.
The “discovery of America” is a racist colonial concept that assumes the dehumanization of native peoples.
This nation needs to make a choice. Does it continue to honor a man whose claim of “discovery” opened the door for centuries of injustice? Or does it openly teach that history, mourn those atrocities, and commit itself to ensuring that it does not happen again?
At the end of his proclamation President Obama directed “that the flag of the United States be displayed on all public buildings on the appointed day in honor of our diverse history and all who have contributed to shaping this Nation.”
In light of this dehumanizing history and in honor of the millions of native peoples who lost lands, cultures, languages, and countless lives to the ensuing European onslaught, I think a more appropriate proclamation would be that the second Monday of October be a national day of mourning and a directive given that the flag of the United States of America be flown at half-mast.