October 16, 2014

LEE | Columbus Day and Cultural Clash

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By CRISPINUS LEE

The recent arrival of Columbus Day was met, at least on my Facebook wall, with a searing crescendo of boos and desire to change the day to celebrate Native American heritage. The idea is sound. Leif Ericson was the first to set eyes on North America and settle on what we now call Greenland, in a settlement known as Vinland. This achievement outdated Columbus’s by a near 500 years and the notion of discovery implies that no one was aware of the continent beforehand. As we know now, the number of Natives living on the continent numbered in the 50 to 100 million.

The Columbus Day celebration may very well be called inadvertent civilizational contact day, but the question of why we celebrate such a day becomes grave when we examine the after effects.

It’s not only this but also the aftereffects that we associate with this contact. The enslavement of the Natives that Spanish colonies would replicate throughout their holdings in New Spain, New Mexico and California. Columbus was as brutal as he was a poor governor of Hispaniola, but he was the beginning of the Americas in the way we know now, which is probably why we associate Columbus as a figure that began modern American history. The Columbian exchange of cultures and demographics was what makes the United States a “Western country,” yet not in the same way as the European states.

Perhaps it is the cultural fascination with the West that we Americans mark Columbus as an important man and thereby dedicate a day for him, much like Washington, but significantly less so. We’ve two state capitals named after Columbus in addition to the federal district (D.C.=District of Columbia). Sidelined by Uncle Sam is another personification of the U.S., a young women in a Star Spangled dress. Her name is Columbia. The cultural junction and seeming Eurocentricism seems to seep through our icons. The name, United States of America, is one of the few national names in the Americas that actually uses a European basis. Mexico derives from the name Aztecs referred to themselves. Canada derives from an Iroquois word meaning settlement or town.

My ultimate statement to the entire article, which was simply spewing forth facts, is that yes, we are a Western country, politically and culturally. However, the stance we take with supposedly trivial issues such as this one will affect the road to reconciling the people of the United States. There is, the recurring theme in American society, in which the need to synthesize our notion as a democratic and tolerant state with a past that includes the violation of the most basic human rights and the continuation of those institutions throughout the establishment of rhetoric that was so insistent of egalitarianism. As citizens of such a state and as participants in the offsprings of such institutions, there is a duty for us to recognize these celebrations and commemorations as obstructions to our future and ugly relics of our past.

Crispinus Lee is a sophomore in College of Arts & Sciences. He may be reached at cl2272@cornell.edu.