Activists say Native Americans, not Columbus, deserve a holiday

  • Jane Redlon (left) and Abby Elliott (center), both of Maine, hope to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous People’s Day. RAY DUCKLER / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Monday, October 09, 2017

If some of the people I met Saturday in front of the state house had their way, you’d be thanking Native Americans, not Christopher Columbus, for that extra hour of sleep on Monday.

Tis the season, and time in history, for revisionist ways of thinking, and that means taking a hard look at figures previously regarded as heroes and leaders.

That’s what the 20 or so people were doing downtown, while shoppers shopped at a farmers market a block away, and cars hummed along on Main Street, filled with people thinking about colorful leaves.

“This is about recognizing what we’re honoring, learning the truth,” said Sterling Chase, a woodworker from Dover who organized this effort to create a holiday called Indigenous People’s Day.

“He was responsible for the killing of native people who were taken as slaves back to Europe. Many of us were taught he was a brave man, but whoever wins the war gets to write the history books.”

The history books for a long time said Columbus discovered America, proved the world was round, made friends with the inhabitants of the “new world,” and opened new trade routes.

That’s what text books once said, and that’s what Mrs. Goldfarb told me in grade school. Turns out, we now know, that was baloney.

The world is changing these days as fast as it spins, and the tale of Columbus and his greatness has more leaks in it than the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria.

And like the problem caused by all those statues honoring all those people who fought for the South during the Civil War and thus supported slavery, good old Chris is already deeply ingrained in our culture and society.

There’s a city named after him in Ohio. There are statues of him all over the country. And he had a hand in your day off Monday, too.

People like Chase don’t care, though.

“Do indigenous people really need to be reminded that it’s Columbus Day?” Chase asked. “This is about doing what’s right. It’s about discovering the truth and wondering why we celebrate this holiday.”

Inquiring minds, more and more as time passes, want to know. Chase helped organize Saturday’s rally. He and others banged on chest-vibrating drums, along with two men trying to build a Japanese martial arts school in Concord.

Jason Seymore, an instructor of Hokuto Taiko Dojo, agreed to share the spot in front of the state house with Chase and his group. It ended up being a nice fit, with both groups coincidentally relying on drums to emphasize their messages.

“They asked if they could join us and of course we said yes,” said Seymore, who had secured his permit before Chase. “Especially for the movement and what they’re trying to change. Cultures coming together for one cause is awesome.”

I’m glad I met Seymore. I wanted another voice, a different voice, one that saw layers here, nuances.

Seymore believed other factors should be considered when sizing up Columbus, who lived more than 500 years ago. Shouldn’t conventional thinking at various times in history play a part in how you’re judged today?

“Ethically speaking, it would have been different today than back then,” Seymore said. “You were not held accountable. As the culture changes, we forget about the way they were back then. We have to try to step back from reality and see how it was back then.”

Plus, say what you will about Columbus, the fact remains that his spirit helped make the world a little smaller, allowing people to think bigger.

“He was an important figure in American history,” Seymore noted. “Regardless of what happened, he made an impact in our country’s history.”

Seymore’s solution? Have two holidays, one for Native Americans and one for Columbus. That’s what they do in Durham, a measure approved last month, making it the first New Hampshire town to take such action.

Chase and his group, though, took the hard-line approach. They wanted Columbus Day dissolved, period, replaced by Indigenous People’s Day.

History now tells us that Columbus set out to find a new route to the East Indies, that he wasn’t the first person to reach the Americas, that he enslaved the people he found, that he brutalized some and kidnapped others, and that he and his men spread disease.

And besides, he never actually landed in our America, instead reaching places such as the Caribbean Islands and the Central and South American coasts.

So why all the fuss?

“I learned in school that he made friends with the Native Americans and all was beautiful and lovely,” said Abby Elliott, who came from Maine, a two-hour drive, to attend the rally. “You can’t polish a turd.”

Elliott’s friend, Jane Redlon, also came down from Maine, bringing her daughter, 3-year-old, Lucy.

“It’s important for (Lucy) to know the truth,” Redlon told me. “I learned the typical Christopher Columbus story in school, how they were friendly with the Native Americans and worked together and how he was the first to discover America, which is false. I was angry when I first learned the truth. I lost faith in our educational system.”

Over on Capitol Street, where the weekly farmers market was in full buzz, merchants initially wondered what the chanting and drumming signified, before seeing signs showing support for Native Americans.

I asked Cindy Canane, owner of Cascade Brook Farm in North Sutton, if the day honoring Columbus should be scrapped.

“I don’t have an opinion; I have to think about it,” Canane told me.

Then she thought about it.

“They brought all the disease, and Europeans kind of ruined their culture,” she said. “I didn’t learn until much later in life what happened.”

Which makes change today difficult.

“There is a long history that is rarely recognized,” added Sarah Hansen of Warner, as she packed up her Kearsarge Gore Farm belongings. “It’s barely seen in our history classes, our literature, our government. I think having a day would show a lot that’s going on with Native American rights and native lands.”

As the ceremony wore on, storm clouds moved in, causing people from the drum circle to look up and hope for better weather.

In more ways than one.