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Celebrating America's First War Criminal Out Of Season

We think his name was Limp Lizard, or maybe Hxetchletozzepltl, but it wasn't Columbus

This is Dark Cloud on Wednesday, January 26, 2005.

Protesters in Denver, often Native American activists, are getting up steam to rid the year and our history of a holiday honoring the man they consider America's first war criminal. This irritates me.

I myself have thought Columbus Day should go, but for very different reasons than those of the Indian activists whose offered history is as inaccurate as their motives are hypocritical.

Let’s recall all this. Seeking wealth and salvation, the supposed Italian Columbus - after that first time, ten week crossing of the North Atlantic to the Caribbean by a round trip route reflective of currents and seasonal winds not yet improved upon – arrived at, we think, Grand Turk Island or, traditionally, San Salvador on October 12, 1492.

The first known celebration of this important event in the US was three hundred years later, sponsored by the Society of St. Tammany, also known as the Columbian Order, only three years after its creation in New York City. The Columbian Order, founded by upholsterer William Mooney, an Irishman, had no ethnic interest in Columbus but a political one: to counteract the conservative, Federalist influence of the Order of the Cincinnati, a political group. It deteriorated through the years into the corrupt Tammany Hall, and its support came from Catholic immigrants, mostly Irish but increasingly Italian, against the Wasp establishment of Federalist, Whig, and then Republican politicians, equally corrupt but safely Protestant.

From the first, Columbus represented the poor Catholics whose early honor and heroics in conquering the New World had been supplanted by the English, and their history distorted and ignored. When politicians spoke of Columbus, it was code for the Catholic vote, as when they spoke of the Pilgrims, it was code for the Protestant. Thanksgiving is mandated honor for Anglo-Puritan self-adoration just as Columbus Day served the poorer Catholic community in self-regard.

In 1892, President Benjamin Harrison, bowing to national demographics, celebrated the 300th Anniversary. By that time, Italians had another problem worse than boilerplate prejudice. The Mafia had arrived in the New World.

Colorado was the first state to officially celebrate Columbus Day in 1905, possibly due to the disproportionately large Italian community in Louisville and Pueblo complete with its internally violent and monumentally incompetent Mafia. It eventually inspired the book The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight. The KKK came to power in the 1920’s to combat the crime of those shifty Italian and Catholic types but, really, it was just Protestant thugs supplanting Catholic ones. Stapleton or Smaldone, it was pretty much the same.

Nationally, the Mafia eventually concluded that Columbus was their poster boy, and Columbus Day became a Hit Men are People Too Day through the 1960’s. Gambino Capo Joe Columbo started the Italian-American Anti-Defamation League to combat pervasive stereotypes of Italians as gangsters, and while extolling these views at a 1971 Columbus Day event in Columbus Circle, Columbo was duly whacked by a mob rival, somewhat contradicting his thesis.

The irony - if it’s still only irony - is that Italy and Italians had almost nothing to do with Columbus. Columbus had to go to Spain, and it’s Spain that honors him. Depending who you believe, he’s buried there or in Santo Domingo. Only later did Italy try to cash in, since Amerigo Vespucci sufficiently drenched his homeland in honor by naming the entire Western Hemisphere after himself.

Because we can’t agree on what we celebrate on Columbus Day with its definite crime ties, nuke it. And because I like the idea of celebrating diversity in this country, given it’s our strength and grace, convert Columbus Day to such, and for that reason. Do not do it for the reasons claimed for our current Indian activists.

Let’s be honest. Columbus did intentionally bring priests and unintentionally bring disease to the Indians, and hard to say for which he should apologize more. Neither he nor Europe wanted the Indians to die; they wanted celestial credit for saving their souls and their physical efforts here to work gold mines and the fields. They didn’t want to have to import other slaves from Africa, an expensive proposition.

The only difference between Columbus and the Aztecs or the Incas or other genocidal groups already here is that his culture was better at what they themselves practiced than they were. The Conquistadors didn’t have to bribe other tribes to overthrow the Incas and the Aztecs. They wanted revenge for oppression and slavery by other Indians.

Which is to say, if we condemn Columbus for mostly inadvertently bringing misery to people, we should condemn others for doing it deliberately. Native Americans have finally discovered that working as one gives them power about five hundred years too late. If they’d listened to Metacom, or Osceola, or Tecumseh, they’d possibly have had a nation organized and independent of the white settlers.

To celebrate their unity now by defaming a man whose values were not much different from those ancestors contemporary to him is a grotesque hypocrisy. Indigenous people are not better than their conquerors just because they lost.