Thursday, October 15, 2009

Don't shoot the messenger!!

There are currently 10 National Holidays, which you can view by clicking on the link below:

what are the national holidays?.

Four of them commemorate the extraordinary achievements of individuals:

Martin Luther King Day
President’s Day (Washington and Lincoln birthdays)
Columbus Day
Christmas (which, technically, would be considered a religious holiday).

Five of the remaining six commemorate the achievements of GROUPS of people. Only January 1 is related to a date.

Many of the holidays listed above have been, at times, controversial.

Not every state embraced Martin Luther King Day, and it wasn’t until 1999 that New Hampshire (the last state to recognize the holiday) gave its official blessing, 16 years after the date was first proclaimed a holiday:

live free or die.

Labor Day today is celebrated on May 1 around the world in commemoration of the event that took place in Chicago in May of 1886 (the Haymarket Riots). Although the very first Labor Day in America was celebrated in New York on September 5, 1882, it wasn’t until 1894 (the year of the Pullman strike) that the first Monday in September became a national holiday.

Congress designated May 1 (the International Labor Day) as Loyalty Day in 1958 due to the day's perceived appropriation by the Soviet Union.

Christmas, because it’s a Christian holiday, sometimes ruffles feathers amongst those who don’t consider themselves Christians. Calling it Xmas, or putting a Menorah alongside the manger scene in places like Daley Plaza, doesn’t really solve the issue.

The latest controversy involves Columbus Day.

Columbus Day was first celebrated in 1792, in New York City. In 1906, Colorado became the first state to celebrate the holiday, and in 1934 (as a result of lobbying by the Catholic group, the Knights of Columbus) it was made a national holiday. The date for the celebration was fixed at the second Monday in October in 1971.

The truth about Christopher Columbus is that he was actually just a good salesman. After several attempts, he managed to convince King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain to lend him LOTS of money so that he could take a shorter route to India and the spice trade.

He wasn’t the first European to reach North America, since Leif Ericson, the Norse, had built a temporary settlement 500 years earlier, but he WAS the first person to initiate contact between Europeans and indigenous Americans.

I recently became aware of a website called,which calls Columbus to task for a couple of things, some of which are detailed below:

who are you calling Kemo Sabe, paleface?.

I’ll be the first to admit that Native Americans have long been mistreated in their native land (for example, they weren’t allowed to vote in national elections until 1923), but the criticism of Columbus seems (to me, at least) a little unfair.

He’s been accused of “opening the floodgates of America to slavery”, even though the first Africans weren’t brought in as slaves in large numbers until the 1700’s, roughly 200 years after Columbus first got here:

who’s been pickin’ your cotton?.

He’s also been criticized for mistreating the natives, even though historical records seem to indicate that he went out of his way to ensure that the natives were treated with respect. The natives HAVE been abused and mistreated, and the site below provides more detail:

who ARE those guys?.

Although public employees in Chicago don’t have to work on Casimir Pulaski Day, and cities around the country have celebrations of various ethnic groups (including my favorite group, the Irish) I’m not in favor of a national holiday for any particular ethnic group, including Native Americans, since it seems to violate the concept of E pluribus unum, a phrase that has been on all American coins since 1873.

As a country, I think that we need to do a better job of acknowledging the heritage, and contributions, of the folks who have lived here for the last 10,000 years or so. When my children were younger, they were enrolled in the YMCA Indian Guides program, which provided at least some insight into the spiritual and economic values of the group of people known today as Native Americans.

Even though the Native American group is a small percentage of the 300,000,000 people that live in the United States, it may surprise you to learn that there are still eight Native American languagest are still spoken here, the most prominent of which is Navajo. At one time, there were roughly 1000 languages that were spoken in North America, so don’t feel embarrassed if you are puzzled by Ebonics.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs formed in 1824 in order to serve the 562 Native American tribes that existed at that time, but similar agencies have existed in the U.S Government since 1775.

As the United States continued its western expansion after the Civil War, there was increasing resentment on the part of the Native Americans who longed for “the way that things used to be”, which led to a period of time called the Indian Wars, which reached their peak at the Battle of Wounded Knee.

Not everyone was in favor of wiping out the folks who were here first, and there was probably more than one soldier at a place called Little Big Horn who wished that he was someplace else:

Please Mr. Custer

Toward the end of the tumultuous decade known as the 60’s, the American Indian Movement was established in Minneapolis in 1968 in order to further the interests of the Native American population.The group attracted widespread attention when they took over Alcatraz Island in 1969, and they got additional publicity when Marlon Brando had Sacheen Littlefeather decline his award for Best Actor (for the 1972 film, The Godfather) at the 1973 Oscar event.

When I taught English in China, I often reminded my students to take pride in their country’s history, since it goes back at least 6000 years. Sadly, our country still needs to do more to “illuminate the masses” about our own cultural history, which actually goes back about 10,000 years.

As always, education is the best answer.

Denigrating the actions of a guy who died over 400 years ago is the worst possible way to achieve greater respect for the Native American people.

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