Five hundred and twenty-five years ago, Christopher Columbus completed an ambitious and daring voyage across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas. The voyage was a remarkable and then-unparalleled feat that helped launch the age of exploration and discovery. The permanent arrival of Europeans to the Americas was a transformative event that undeniably and fundamentally changed the course of human history and set the stage for the development of our great Nation. Therefore, on Columbus Day, we honor the skilled navigator and man of faith, whose courageous feat brought together continents and has inspired countless others to pursue their dreams and convictions — even in the face of extreme doubt and tremendous adversity.
More than five centuries after his initial voyage, we remember the “Admiral of the Ocean Sea” for building the critical first link in the strong and enduring bond between the United States and Europe. While Isabella I and Ferdinand II of Spain sponsored his historic voyage, Columbus was a native of the City of Genoa, in present day Italy, and represents the rich history of important Italian American contributions to our great Nation. There can be no doubt that American culture, business, and civic life would all be much less vibrant in the absence of the Italian American community. We also take this opportunity to reaffirm our close ties to Columbus’s country of birth, Italy. Italy is a strong ally and a valued partner in promoting peace and promoting prosperity around the world.
We used to view ourselves as a shining City on the Hill, a nation that hadn’t always done right but that, more than any other nation, had changed the world’s concept of liberty — and that in the last century had saved more people from tyranny than any other nation in the history of human kind.
Our children, however, are simply taught that Western culture is an evil that destroyed perfect indigenous people. Columbus is the perfect scapegoat for this world view.
I’m all for a nuanced view of history. Teaching that humans are saints is always a mistake — and that’s true whether you’re trying to create plaster saints out of explorer’s or Native Americans. Yes, the explorer’s were often brutal by today’s lights and they were certainly avaricious. They were also brave, creative, innovative, ignorant of the dangers they carried with them in terms of disease, and many, especially the priests, acted out of a genuine belief that they were bringing a light around the world. And yes, the Indians suffered an invasion of their enclosed world; yes, they lost their land; and yes, diseases decimated them. But that overlooks the fact that they couldn’t have lived in a hermetically sealed bubble forever, and that no one understood germ theory in those days. As to land loss, yes, that was a tragedy, although perhaps inevitable with a 90% decimation rate from the bacteria the Westerners never knew they carried with them.
But the Indians were also real people. Some were helpless, hapless souls, but these souls had long been victims of other Native American tribes, even before the explorers came. Indeed, many were delighted that the explorers had come, because they saw these armed men on horseback as a way to level the playing field. Some tribes were vicious killers (even cannibals), some were just go-along-to-get-along people. Their reverence for nature sprang in part because they lived closely with nature and in part because, as stone age people, they were unable to dominate nature as the westerners did. When they had the ability to destroy, they did (as many of the Plains tribes did with their overwhelmingly wasteful buffalo hunts, which saw them drive hundreds and thousands off of cliffs).
When cultures clash, it’s rare for them to integrate and live in harmony. One wins, and one loses. Some cultures and conquerors are more evil than others, and some are simply more powerful. All are products of their time. And it’s utterly stupid for our school systems to try to pretend that the explorers were the respositories of all the world’s evil, while the Native Americans were saints on earth — pretty much virgin souls waiting to be sacrificed. That’s a stupid and boring way to teach.