In 2013, I spent Columbus Day at my internship in Portland, Oregon. It was just another working day; no wall decorations, no pot-luck lunch of Italian, Greek, and Polish food, no reminiscing with the descendants of Ellis Island immigrants. In the Pacific Northwest was where I first read in the papers the movement towards supplanting Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day. To do so would be one of the first steps to reconcile for 520 years of broken treaties and misunderstandings with the Native Americans. In the Pacific Northwest, little would be missed as Columbus Day, and the white-ethnic identity movement, had not permeated the West Coast.
We can thank Richard Nixon for Columbus Day becoming a paid federal holiday in 1971, the reason being his own re-election fears. In 1968, his second time running for President, Nixon won by a small margin in a late-breaking election with twists-and-turns that took the life of Robert Kennedy. Identity politics was Nixon’s strategy that helped him win some southern states in 1968 he had lost in 1960; for 1972, he was expanding the strategy to traditionally Democratic-voting Catholics.
Why would Christopher Columbus become the second person in America’s history to have the honor of a Federal holiday? Columbus was a man whose claim to fame is being the first well-groomed European to discover America: It is theorized that the Vikings arrived in Newfoundland several centuries before Columbus. Although not his intention, Columbus’ ‘discovery’ of America enabled generations of Spanish purveyors to strong-arm natives, and use and brutalize slaves, in their pursuit of Eldorado and the valley of gold. Even in 1971, this ought to have been enough ‘dirty laundry’ to name the proposed Federal holiday after another explorer. The answer is that the holiday should be named “Knights of Columbus” Day. Speaking on behalf of the largely Catholic white-ethnic population, it was this large and once-influential Catholic men’s organization that pushed for the holiday. America was no longer an Anglo-Saxon Protestant nation, and what better way to signify this than to elevate the status of local and parochial Christopher Columbus parades to federal recognition?
Now that Christopher Columbus held the status of a Founding Father, based on historical bias that elevated his perceived importance, there was interest and opposition in creating the thirteenth Federal holiday: Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, in January. In some southern states, the proposed holiday ‘conflicted’ with a holiday commemorating Confederate leaders Stonewall Jackson and General Robert E. Lee. Staten Island’s Congressional Representative, a strong supporter for Columbus Day, flat out rejected MLK Day as one holiday too many. Over opposition, MLK Day became a holiday.
Since that time, there have been proposals to make our roster of Federal holidays more inclusive. Proposals include the aforementioned Indigenous People’s Day; Lunar New Year; a Latino Day; Jewish and Islamic holy days, and even a day for Harvey Milk. Just as America becomes more pluralistic, we’ve run out of opportunities to create more three-day weekends. Hard-charging American managers would be reluctant to have more than one paid Monday or Friday off in a month. Bringing awareness of minority groups and causes into the national conscious requires another approach, and re-naming Federal holidays has limited potential. My advice? Enjoy Columbus Day, and if you see fit, give a disclaimer to friends, explaining the forgotten historical context of the holiday.