Every so often, a legislator presents a bill in a way that appeals to the heart, as well as the mind. Such was the case when Rep. Bridget Smith introduced HB 322 to the House State Administration Committee.
HB 322 would change the holiday Montanans currently celebrate as Columbus Day to Montana Heritage Day. But Smith began by reminding the committee why so many Montanans are passionate about maintaining public lands. We are stewards who “imagine [our] grandchildren’s awe as they gaze at Montana’s breath-taking beauty.” We are fighting not just for justice, but for the world we leave our grandchildren.
Then Smith and other proponents clarified the distorted picture of Christopher Columbus we celebrate in October, with the corollary distortions of America’s indigenous people. It’s the story of “discovery” that assumes that all meaningful history was made by European males, that despite the long existence of indigenous people on this continent prior to 1492, the land we call America was like Lana Turner at the soda shop, waiting to be discovered as the screen idol she would one day be.
It’s a story of conquest portrayed as at once heroic and inevitable, as one exceptional people simply overran other peoples with their own laws, their own ways of life, and their own religious notions. And because they were exceptional, it was OK to take everything the others had: their land, their freedom, their lives, and ultimately their very identities.
In the case of Columbus himself, it’s the story not of a hero, but of a brutal maniac, who encountered the generous, loving Taino tribe in 1492 and immediately calculated that with 50 well-armed men, he could subjugate them. On his next trip he brought 17 shipfuls of men to do just that. Once conquered, the Taino were shipped or exploited on site for forced labor. They were mutilated or murdered on whim and raped at their conquerors’ pleasure.
This is not the story of a good guy who had a few faults or simply reflected the mores of his time. It’s the story of a man so steeped in violence that by 1500 his own men were so disgusted they sent him back to Spain in chains. Good old Ferdinand and Isabella, far removed from the daily reminders of his brutality and still wishing to profit from it, stripped him of his ruling authority but commissioned him for one more trip to the land he still claimed was India. By 1542, the kind-hearted Taino who welcomed him a half-century earlier were all but extinct.
It took over four centuries for their true story to be told, a story that has a familiar ring to the rest of America’s indigenous people. Twenty-one other states, recognizing the damage that the celebration of Columbus does to our understanding of our history and to American Indians’ minds and hearts, have stopped the practice. Many states have replaced it with Indigenous Peoples Day.
The remarkable thing about HB 322 is that it doesn’t seek that well-deserved recognition. It merely stipulates that, instead of celebrating Columbus, we celebrate Montana heritage. As Salish-Kootenai leader Vernon Finley urged, “Often we are opposite, but extremes can marry …. Montana belongs to all of us. Montana Heritage Day can be a source of pride that unites us.”
How do you deny such a magnanimous request? Largely on a party vote, it appears. The reasoning? One Republican summed it up this way: All history has its good and bad parts. There was good and bad to what Columbus did on that day (?) in 1492. Understanding that is what makes this country great.
Rep. Bachmeier, freshly out of high school and quite familiar with how little of the “bad parts” of Columbus ever surface, offered this alternative: Because the national holiday is still called Columbus Day, the best way to make sure the true story gets told is by calling it something else in Montana. Future generations would learn that in 2017, Montana’s legislature, cognizant of the harm the Columbus myth not only represents, but perpetuates, took a stand for truth and healing.
His wisdom fell on deaf ears. The Republicans had backed into a plausible alibi and were sticking to it. But one of them blurted out the truth as the discussion ended. Expressing the hope that she had not offended her American Indian friends, she explained: “We want to celebrate our holiday as well. We can celebrate this on a different day.”
Breath-taking. But not beautiful. So much for winning hearts and minds.
Mary Sheehy Moe