We know history is a messy subject, especially in how it is recorded and retold and then sometimes co-opted for political reasons. Our perspectives can differ based on how we view history through our own filters of race, culture, education, personal experience and more.
Were statues and memorials to Confederate generals and politicians raised to honor Southern history and culture or as a veiled reminder to blacks and whites throughout the nation during the Jim Crow era as to how things were going to be, regardless of the Civil War’s outcome?
The divisions are as stark when when we consider Columbus Day and how some cities are reconsidering how to mark the holiday.
Edmonds is among the latest to reconsider how to observe Columbus Day. At its Sept. 19 meeting, the Edmonds City Council adopted a resolution, effective this year, declaring that the second Monday in October will be known as Indigenous Peoples Day in the city of Edmonds.
Starting with Berkeley, California, in 1992, there’s been a movement among cities to rename Columbus Day as Indigenous Peoples Day, shifting the day’s emphasis from an explorer with a complicated history to that of the people throughout the Americas who were here before his ships’ arrival more than 500 years ago.
The list has grown in Washington and other Western states following a 2011 conference of 59 Northwest tribes that asked governments to make the change to honor Indigenous Peoples Day. Currently, Washington cities that recognize Indigenous Peoples Day include Seattle, Yakima, Spokane, Bainbridge Island and Lynnwood.
There’s good reason for that reconsideration.
The better-known misconceptions are that Columbus made the voyage to prove the world was round and that he was the first to discover America. Despite what we learned in the nursery rhyme, Columbus was seeking trade routes with the promise of wealth for himself and his benefactors in Spain. And — not withstanding Leif Erickson’s arrival in what would become Canada, 500 years before him — Columbus never stepped a Spanish leather boot in the Americas, landing instead on the island of Hispaniola, exploring the coasts of Cuba, Haiti and the Dominican Republic and later exploring the coasts of Central and South America.
Columbus, without a doubt, gets credit for showing the trans-Atlantic voyage was possible and launching the exploration and colonization of the Western Hemisphere that followed his voyages, but that, of course, came at a terrible price to countless indigenous peoples and their cultures, starting with the Taino people of Hispaniola. Rather than just establishing trade with the Taino, Columbus in his journals wrote eagerly of their potential as “good servants.” Slavery, disease and the near-elimination of Taino people followed.
The trick comes in how to mark that conflicted, messy history, honoring Columbus’ exportation but not ignoring the genocide and appropriation of lands that followed, while at the same time honoring the resident cultures of the Caribbean and the Americas.
Edmonds’ resolution hits that mark, even as it came with a misstep.
The resolution, drafted by the city’s Diversity Commission, originally recommended that while naming the day to honor Indigenous Peoples it also preserve the day as Columbus Day. The intent of the commission’s compromise was to honor indigenous cultures but not at the cost of wiping away Columbus’ history, good and bad.
When it reached the council, Councilmember Mike Nelson moved to amend the resolution to strike Columbus Day from the title while keeping references to the explorer in the body of the resolution and with the recognition that Columbus Day would remain a federal holiday in the city. The amendment passed on a 5-2 vote, and the resolution was adopted unanimously.
The amendment’s effect on the resolution should be minor in the city’s practice of observing the holiday, but it came at some loss of respect for the work of the city’s Diversity Commission. The commission took the valuable time of its members to reach a consensus on how to word the resolution and balance the interests of history and culture. In a few minutes of council discussion, that effort was disregarded, if only partially so.
City councils aren’t rubber stamps for the resolutions and ordinances that are drafted by a city’s commissions, boards and staff. But when those measures are rejected or amended, greater consideration and discussion is owed, especially to those who volunteer their time on those panels.
During the meeting’s public comments section, the Diversity Commission’s co-chairman Ed Dorame quoted from a letter by a student at Durango, Colorado’s Fort Lewis College as it established its own Indigenous People’s Day last year: “The point of Indigenous Peoples Day is not to erase Columbus from the history books or collective memory. The goal is to change the conversation to talk about his impact on present day indigenous communities as part of the healing process. As we focus on the healing element of Indigenous Peoples Day, we open ourselves up to being better global citizens who are aware of the struggles and experience of people and groups.”
That change in conversation can now continue in Edmonds and should be considered by others within Snohomish County.