As the USIH Blog’s Monday blogger, I find myself writing on most federal holidays. And though the federal government is about to enter its third week of shutdown, today is still a federal holiday: Columbus Day.
But here’s the funny thing about my Columbus Day. I spent the weekend in my hometown of Berkeley, California, in which, somewhat surprisingly, Columbus Day is much, much more important than it seems to be in my adoptive home of Norman, Oklahoma. Here in the Sooner State, schools and universities are open. Other than not receiving U.S. mail, there’s little evidence that this is a holiday at all. Meanwhile, back in Berkeley, many businesses had signs announcing that they’d be closed today. Though the holiday for which they’d be closing was not “Columbus Day” but rather “Indigenous Peoples Day,” which, since 1992, has been the City of Berkeley’s official name for the holiday.
The history of Columbus Day, which first became a federal holiday in 1934, has two clashing, but powerful, ethnic components. On the one hand, the holiday rose to prominence in the early twentieth-century as a celebration of Italian-American pride. On the other hand, along with its much more significant autumn cousin, Thanksgiving, Columbus Day has long angered Native American groups (as well as at least annoying those of Scandinavian descent, who’d rather celebrate Leif Erickson, who has to settle for an annual national day of commemoration). Three states with large indigenous populations, South Dakota, Alaska, and Hawaii, simply don’t celebrate the holiday. I suspect Oklahoma’s relatively subdued recognition of the day reflects our large American Indian population….as well as our relatively small Italian-American presence (interestingly, the largest Italian festival in the state, which takes place in Macalester in southeastern Oklahoma, started on Columbus Day in 1975, but in a couple years moved to Labor Day and now takes place around Memorial Day).
But there’s another story here, too. And this observation, I’m afraid, will be bloggily impressionistic: I think that Christopher Columbus is simply a less important cultural figure in the US today than he was in the 19th and early 20th-centuries. While once school children simply learned that “Columbus discovered America,” today that picture is (rightly) clouded. Columbus was clearly not the first person to reach the Americas. He was not even the first European to do so. And his voyages to the Americas, while still seen, rightly, as epochal events, are now more clouded, the sense of cultural and human destruction that followed complicates the old triumphant narrative.
Among the things I brought back with me from my trip to Berkeley was my modest childhood coin collection. Though I was more into European history in high school than American history, I collected U.S. coins. And the very first coin I bought was a 1893 Columbian half-dollar. The first commemorative coin issued by the U.S. mint, the Columbian half commemorated the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s expedition to the New World…and raised money for the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, an event with which, while in grad school years later, I came to be fascinated. But I knew next to nothing about the Chicago fair when I got that coin. I think I bought my Columbian half because it was an attractive, but not too expensive, coin that offered what I loved about old American coins: a quotidian object from my country’s past that, in its pastness, felt like it was from another country. Designed by Charles Barber, the Chief Engraver of the U.S. Mint in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and the designer of the many coins that popularly bear his name, the coin features a stern portrait of Columbus on the obverse and an image of the Santa Maria and the globe on the other. Though, as an effort to promote and fund the Exposition, the coin proved to be something of a fiasco.
There would of course, be no federal coin or world’s fair attached to the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s voyage in 1992, which, as those of my academic generation will remember, seemed to be more of an occasion for another whack at the cultural wars than for simple celebration. In a box somewhere, however, I do have a jar that contains a single piece of commemorative, dry pasta that somebody sold that year (it’s in the shape of the numbers 1492-1992). My guess is that, at the very least, it probably holds sauce pretty well.