Columbus Day’s real legacy

So, tomorrow we "celebrate" Columbus Day. If there is a holiday that needs to go or, better yet, be renamed, it’s Columbus Day.

I grew up at a time when we were taught that good ol’ Christopher Columbus discovered America on Oct. 12, 1492. Well, we now know Columbus was not the first European to touch the Americas. In fact, he never touched soil that is now the United States.

I frequently teach a course about the history of immigration. The first question I ask is, "Who were the first people to come to what is now the United States?"

The answers I typically get are, "England," "France," "Spain," and occasionally, "The Vikings." Rarely does anyone say, "Native Americans," or "First Nation" peoples, as I refer to them.

But, think about it. Even the First Nation people came from somewhere else. They just happened to get here first, long before European settlers arrived on North American shores at Plymouth or Jamestown. Columbus? Well, he stumbled on what is now part of the Bahamas.

So, we truly are 100 percent a nation of immigrants. There is not a single person living in the United States legally or illegally today who is not the product of someone who found his or her way here from some place else. This includes people of Lakota, Cheyenne, Cherokee, Abenaki, or of any other tribal descent.

So why do we continue to honor someone who didn’t even discover North America, but who certainly contributed to enslaving the First Nation peoples he encountered, not to mention exposing them to diseases which ultimately spread and decimated tribal populations. Oh, Columbus wasn’t the only European explorer to spread disease and destruction among the tribes here, but he contributed to it.

I still remember how, the United States government, in its infinitely misguided wisdom, committed money and manpower hours towards a huge year-long "celebration" in 1992 marking the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ so-called discovery of America. I covered a public forum on the planning for the event at The University of Maine at Machias in 1991 for the Bangor Daily News.

It showed the insensitivity of our government to a people whose land was stolen and who, some argue, were the target of a concerted effort by our government to eradicate in what bordered on genocide.

Plans for the 500th celebration quietly died after various tribal leaders protested our government’s plans to celebrate a man partially responsible for much of what followed in Native American history.

And, the tragedy continues today in places like the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. I’ve written about Pine Ridge in the past, but it bears repeating.

In 2016, in a country with so much prosperity, we have a Lakota Sioux reservation where the average lifespan for a man is 48 years old and a woman is around 52. It is a place where tuberculosis, alcoholism and suicide rates far exceed the national average. It is a place with minimal health services available and where school dropout rates are stratospheric. It is a place where many homes lack running water and heat, and where black mold and other issues commonly exist in their homes.

We provide billions of dollars of assistance to third-world countries, yet do nothing for people living in similar conditions in our own backyards. Out of sight, out of mind. Pine Ridge is so far off the beaten path that many Americans have never heard of it.

Yet, most people here know of Wounded Knee, where a massacre occurred on Dec. 29, 1890, and where a famous standoff occurred between the feds and tribal members in 1973. Wounded Knee borders on Pine Ridge.

The 1890 massacre was at the hands of the 7th Calvary, which coincidentally was George Custer’s former command. Pay back for the Little Big Horn massacre in June 1876? Perhaps, but you be the judge.

Rather than a holiday for Christopher Columbus, I’d like to see this October holiday celebrated as Native American Remembrance Day, or in some similar fashion. We can’t change the past and, as is the case with so much happening in our country today, we shouldn’t be held to blame for past sins of our long-ago ancestors, such as slavery.

However honoring a people, who were here first and from which we took so much, is the right thing to do. Let’s make this a holiday with real meaning. Let’s make it a day to reflect and to truly honor and celebrate a culture and a proud people we almost wiped out as a matter of government policy.

Nashua native Paul Sylvain writes from his home in Summerville, S.C. His column appears the second of the month. He can be reached at