Walsh’s Wonderings — Indigenous Peoples Day
As we approach the second Monday of October, it’s hard not to notice a rash of sudden disappearances of stoic men throughout Connecticut parks. The disappearances all involve the same man, dead for over 500 years and with a propensity for getting lost.
A statue of Christopher Columbus in Middletown’s Harbor Park disappeared on June 13 before another Columbus statue was vandalized on Blinman Street in New London on June 14. New Haven’s Columbus disappeared from Wooster Square Park on June 24 before Norwalk removed Columbus from Thomas C. O’Connor Park the next day. Columbus went missing from Hartford’s Columbus Green near the State Capitol on June 29. The Columbus statue in front of Waterbury City Hall was decapitated on the Fourth of July, and the Columbus residing at Seaside Park in Bridgeport disappeared two days later.
In fact, not only has Columbus himself been disappearing at an alarming rate, but even his holiday has been demoted from the federal pantheon of paid days off. In 1892, President Benjamin Harrison recognized the federal celebration of Columbus’ landing in North American, but it wasn’t until 1934 that Franklin Delano Roosevelt made Columbus Day a federal holiday.
Recently, however, many states have started transitioning toward a more inclusive holiday in light of the genocide that followed Columbus’ “discovery.” At least eight states and more than 130 cities across 34 states now observe Indigenous Peoples Day as an alternative to Columbus Day. While a 2017 proposal to change the name officially in Connecticut didn’t get past the state legislature, West Hartford and Bridgeport public schools joined New Haven mayor Toni Harp in changing the name of the holiday on their respective calendars.
Far from a rebuke of Italian Americans, the change is meant to honor Indigenous communities and their resilience in spite of the European settlers who followed Columbus to North America. While many feel Columbus Day is a day to celebrate the contributions of Italian Americans to the United States, still others are traumatized by having to celebrate the 500 years of genocide and subjegation that followed.
When I was in school, I just assumed the confusion around Columbus Day was my fault. I learned most of my Columbus history through a series of school plays: Columbus gets three ships lost before stumbling into North America. He figures he better think of something quick because a lot of angry sailors at that moment are trying to figure out why they aren’t looking at the shores of India. After conferring with some of the local Native Americans, he decides that he has “discovered” a “new world,” conveniently forgetting the people who had lived there for centuries (and who’d just told him he’d discovered it in the first place). This news takes some of the edge off getting lost, which is good when you have to answer to a queen who gave you three ships with the expectation that you return them loaded with Indian spices.
It’s hard to explain to kids like me how we could create a national holiday to honor someone who never set foot in the United States (he actually anchored in the Bahamas). It’s even harder to explain to adults what happened to cause that holiday to disappear so quickly. It’s easy to get lost amid all these cultural shifts going on around us, especially when we keep redrawing the lines on the maps.