What do you call this coming Monday? Do you call it Columbus Day? Do you picture Christopher Columbus kneeling in the sand by the seashore, leaning on his cross-shaped sword, eyes fixed on the heavens?
This is the picture most of us of a certain, ahem, “age” think of when we hear the words Columbus Day.
Columbus was that daring explorer searching for a passage to lands filled with spices and silk.
He was looking for a shortcut to taking the long and arduous overland route to India or China.
Many Europeans, including Columbus, did not know that the Pacific Ocean existed; they thought that all you had to do was cross the Atlantic and you would be in the Far East. Voyages of discovery proved otherwise.
No, Columbus never made it to those lands. Instead, he reached what many now say is San Salvador and a native population that had never met a white man before and would never be the same after they did.
For many years, children were taught that Columbus discovered America. But did he?
He brought back to Spain, then one of the most powerful nations in the world, dreams of gold that must have danced in the heads of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, his benefactors.
He also brought back slaves. He brought to the “new world” disease, slavery, murder and hardship for the native people living there.
Today, many Americans of Italian descent have claimed the holiday as a celebration of their Italian heritage. They commemorate the discovery of America in the light of all things Italian, just as people of Irish descent use St. Patrick’s Day to celebrate their heritage.
A celebration of the day actually began in 1792, but it wasn’t made a national holiday until 1937 by Franklin Roosevelt.
It was initially celebrated every year on Oct. 12, but that was changed to the second Monday in October in 1971.
Many have argued that Leif Erikson, that gallant Norse explorer from Iceland, discovered North America about 500 years before Columbus in the year 1000. He called it Vinland.
They say Erikson explored the Canadian coast and may even have gone some distance south, close to Cape Cod.
He supposedly spent a harsh winter in America in a shelter he and his men made for themselves and their ship before returning home.
In 1964, Congress made Oct. 9 Leif Erikson Day in the United States to recognize his exploits and discoveries.
However, we all know that it was the Native Americans who crossed the Bering Strait and filled the continents with people from the frozen north to the tip of South America.
They were the first to explore America, and they were here centuries before Columbus or Erikson.
That is why many Native Americans do not recognize Columbus Day and, instead, use the day as a celebration of Native American culture and for the condemnation of Columbus and the European explorers who followed him, since they began the destruction of the Native American way of life.
Alaska, Hawaii, Oregon and South Dakota, as well as several major cities throughout the United States, have officially replaced Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day.
So now, there are Americans who argue over the day with various cultures claiming it for their own.
This is one of those political “hot potatoes” without an easy solution. Do you make it Indigenous Peoples Day and insult millions of Italian-Americans who see the day more as a celebration of their ancestry than anything else?
Or do you continue to call it Columbus Day and insult Native Americans who were persecuted in America beginning the day that Columbus first set foot on American soil?
One thing is certain; Columbus did “discover” America in the mainstream, European-centric sense of the word.
However, there were already Americans (not called Americans at the time) here—people who moved here centuries earlier looking for new lands filled with natural resources and sustainable places where they could raise their families and grow communities.
People have continued to come to America for the same reasons. Once the United States was created, more and more people came here to start new lives.
These people weren’t looking to find gold to exploit and bring back to a foreign country, and they weren’t looking for a passage to China.
They came as immigrants following in the footsteps of the earliest Native Americans.
They were looking for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. They were looking for a place where they could thrive and raise a family. And that’s just what they did.
So whether you call it Columbus Day, Indigenous Peoples Day, or you celebrate your Italian heritage—hey, you might even celebrate Leif Erikson Day on Tuesday—take a few minutes to reflect on all of the wonderful reasons people come to America and will always hope to come here.
America is the land of opportunity—the land of liberty and freedom for all. So give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.
We welcome you to the place we all call home—America.
Steve Frey is a writer and CEO of Ascendant Educational Services based in Radford.