I had actually forgotten it was Columbus day until I went to the Stanford Shopping Center yesterday and saw that GAP was selling a whole bunch of expensive clothes for slightly less than the usual. But I thought a lot about our continued celebration of Columbus Day when I saw the chalk messages that the Stanford Native community had written across White Plaza. These messages ranged from the classic and simple (“Native Pride”) to the provoking (“Columbus Day: Celebrating Genocide Since 1492”), to the factual (“When Columbus Landed in 1492 He Found Land; It Was Native Land”). (FYI, I’ve added punctuation to give a sense of how these looked spelled out.) I liked the display immensely, and I will remember it for a long time, even after the afternoon rain has smeared all the chalk (although I swear there is still a TWAIN! from 2010 hanging around). It was simple, truthful, and forced me to think about celebrating Columbus even as many of us dislike the historical figure and his extreme and systematic cruelty to the Native peoples he encountered.
Everyone has heard of the controversy around Columbus Day, but I think many people accept that it has become a tradition, a national holiday, a day to buy cheaper jeans. While many people who paid attention in history class will remember Christopher Columbus as the enslaver of thousands, America has chosen to remember him as a pioneer, a hero, a sort of 15th century entrepreneur. Whether or not Columbus’ discovery of America was the sort of heroic act it’s often depicted as is debatable, that thousands of peaceful people were enslaved and brutalized under his command is not.
The chalk writing in White Plaza did not suggest a definitive course of action, a way to right this wrong. We cannot drag Columbus before the International Criminal Court. We cannot force King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella to pay reparations to the descendants of those whose lives were ruined because of European invasion. We cannot restore the lives of those victims of genocide. True, there are people today who are responsible for crimes against humanity who are still leading countries, unbothered or at least not seriously threatened. But the Native community got it right–there is value in remembering the specific case of Christopher Columbus. We cannot fix this part of the past, but we should remember that a distance of 500 years cannot turn cruelty into heroism. We should not choose to ignore the unpleasant parts of our nation’s founding; false memories of the past obscure the issues of the present. Thank you to the Stanford Native community for reminding us all of this.