Columbus Day

Today we celebrate Columbus Day. This is a time for us to reflect on history, it’s complexity, and the struggles and successes of our ancestors. Over 500 years ago, waves of Europeans started migrating to a distant and mysterious continent. They were immigrants. Some were refugees. Some were ambitious. All were taking a big chance. So today we celebrate immigrants, and opportunity.
Today is also Indigenous Peoples’ Day. This is a time for us to recognize the unique challenges of people whose lives were disrupted or destroyed by the influx of immigrants. It’s a time for us to reflect on the challenge of seeing the world from others’ point of view. It’s also a time to reflect on how power and violence shaped and continue to shape the course of history.
European settlers by and large did not engage in violence. They were simply trying to survive and thrive in this new world. But at the boundaries of their society, they clashed with indigenous people, and used whatever resources they had to dominate and suppress the power of native peoples. These Europeans were generally faithful, and aspired to be good and kind people. So they told themselves stories about how such violent conflicts were a righteous and justifiable struggle. This is also a time to reflect on how easily our sense of ethics is subordinated to our wish to survive, and how hard it is to see the world from another’s perspective when we’re in fear.
The NYT ran a fascinating article on the history of Columbus Day. The article gives another chance to reflect on how our attitudes change over time, and how a celebration can influence a culture over time.