October 08, 2012

Obama’s Columbus Day proclamation

President Barack Obama’s Columbus Day Proclamation

By President Barack ObamaAs dawn broke over the Atlantic on October 12, 1492, a perilous 10-week journey across an ocean gave way to encounters and events that would dramatically shape the course of history. Today, we recall the courage and the innovative spirit that carried Christopher Columbus and his crew from a Spanish port to North America, and we celebrate our heritage as a people born of many histories and traditions.

When the explorers laid anchor in the Bahamas, they met Indigenous Peoples who had inhabited the Western hemisphere for millennia. As we reflect on the tragic burdens tribal communities bore in the years that followed, let us commemorate the many contributions they have made to the American experience, and let us continue to strengthen the ties that bind us today.

In the centuries since that fateful October day in 1492, countless pioneering Americans have summoned the same spirit of discovery that drove Christopher Columbus when he cast off from Palos, Spain, to pursue the unknown. Engineers and entrepreneurs, sailors and scientists, explorers of the physical world and chroniclers of the human spirit–all have worked to broaden our understanding of the time and space we live in and who we are as a people. On this 520th anniversary of Columbus’s expedition to the West, let us press forward with renewed determination toward tomorrow’s new frontiers.

As a native of Genoa, Italy, Christopher Columbus also inspired generations of Italian immigrants to follow in his footsteps. Today, we take time to celebrate the innumerable contributions that generations of Italian Americans have made to our country. Throughout 2013, Italy will also commemorate this rich heritage and the enduring bonds between our countries with the Year of Italian Culture in the United States, which Americans will join in celebrating.

In commemoration of Christopher Columbus’s historic voyage 520 years ago, the Congress, by joint resolution of April 30, 1934, and modified in 1968 (36 U.S.C. 107), as amended, has requested the President proclaim the second Monday of October of each year as “Columbus Day.”

NOW, THEREFORE, I, BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States of America, do hereby proclaim October 8, 2012, as Columbus Day. I call upon the people of the United States to observe this day with appropriate ceremonies and activities. I also direct that the flag of the United States be displayed on all public buildings on the appointed day in honor of our diverse history and all who have contributed to shaping this Nation.

IN WITNESS WHEREOF, I have hereunto set my hand this fifth day of October, in the year of our Lord two thousand twelve, and of the Independence of the United States of America the two hundred and thirty-seventh.
Comment:  My Native Facebook friends were surprised and a little shocked at this whitewashing of American history. They shouldn't have been. Speeches and proclamations like this are par for the course in the US. Politicians must regurgitate America's founding myth if they don't want to be kicked out of office.

Despite his multiracial background, Obama is no exception. He's barely mentioned race since he was elected in 2008. I've noted his myth-making several times before:

Michelle Obama on "doing the impossible"
Why US chose "Geronimo" codename
The Story of Us whitewashes history
Obama refused to use g-word
Settling the west in the Inaugural Address
Obama to dissolve tribes


Let's discuss what Obama wrote paragraph by paragraph:

1) Obama talks about Columbus's "spirit" but not his goals. Especially in Columbus's second through fourth voyages, when he knew he'd found something. He wanted gold...slaves...and territory under Christian domain.

There's nothing noble about any of these goals. As with most Westerners during most of Western history, he was motivated by a lust for wealth and power. He wasn't aiming to help anybody except himself.

Also, we do not celebrate immigrants in general on Columbus Day. Not the Irish who came in the 19th century, the Eastern Europeans who came in the 20th century, or the Latinos who are coming now. If you want to celebrate these things...great. Let's replace Columbus Day with Immigrants Day.

2) "The tragic burdens tribal communities bore in the years that followed"...what a sorry euphemism for genocide. To state the obvious, Columbus instigated the so-called tragic burdens. He forced the Indians to bring him gold and enslaved, mutilated, or killed those who didn't cooperate.

As indigenous people across two continents have said, why are we celebrating this thug? Hitler had an innovative spirit too; who else would've thought to incinerate an entire ethnic group in ovens? It's asinine and immoral to celebrate someone's "spirit" without noting the intentions and consequences of that spirit.

3) This paean to explorers ignores the fact that most immigrants have been driven by economic necessity, not a quest for knowledge. It further ignores the fact that many arrived here as indentured servants or slaves, not willing travelers.

But if you want to celebrate explorers instead of immigrants...great. Let's replace Columbus Day with Explorers Day.

4) This sounds like a big wet kiss to the Italian American community, who would squeal like pigs if we replaced "their" day. But why are we celebrating Italians rather than Germans, the French, the Dutch, Scandinavians, and other ethnic groups that have contributed to America? What's the justification for singling out Italians?


This proclamation tells us more about why we shouldn't celebrate Columbus Day than why we should. Namely, because it fabricates a US history that's only vaguely related to reality. It's all about making us feel good about ourselves, not informing us about history.

The proclamation doesn't tell us much more than the 1492 poem does. You know the one:In fourteen hundred ninety-two
Columbus sailed the ocean blue.
Indeed, the poem is more accurate and informative than the proclamation:Columbus sailed on to find some gold
To bring back home, as he'd been told.

He made the trip again and again,
Trading gold to bring to Spain.
The poem says more about Columbus's greed than his "spirit." When an old children's poem is a better history source than a presidential proclamation, that's a problem.

In conclusion, all this fairy-tale fantasizing about how we cherish Indians and immigrants is a crock. It has little to do with the last few centuries of history or with conditions today. It suggests why we should abolish Columbus Day or replace it with something worth celebrating.

For more on Columbus, see Columbus Day Celebrates Conquest and "6 Ridiculous Lies About Indians."


Anonymous said...

On the Slaery Scale of stupid, offensive things a politician should know not to say, this is about a 1. (Saying God has a special plan for America is a 1; saying slavery was a good thing is a 10.)

dmarks said...

I was not surprised. I expected his speech would be this way.

Rob said...

I wasn't surprised either. All American politicians say things like this.

And I didn't claim it was a major offense. But I doubt many Indians would give it a mere 1 on a 1-10 scale.

dmarks said...

Nothing against Obama, per se. But while he does sometimes break the mold, he is too often a typical politician.

dmarks said...

Also, in regards to:

"He made the trip again and again,
Trading gold to bring to Spain."

I don't think it says a thing about greed. After all, someone CAN trade for gold fairly. But it screams incomplete. due to what it overlooks... how he really got the gold?

It is like if someone wrote a poem about a plantation owner in the old South, and had just a few lines about how he produced lots of cotton year after year.

Rob said...

The poem's singleminded focus on gold makes it sound like a greedy obsession to me.

The following posting suggests that politicians can tell the truth about US history without suffering. Jerry Brown did, anyway:


On President Obama’s Columbus Day Proclamation

To his credit, California Governor Jerry Brown’s Ppoclamation on Native American Heritage Day was a more honest and forthright acknowledgment of the dark and bloody history of colonization. By way of contrast with President Obama’s Columbus Day Proclamation, Governor Brown wrote and spoke of the effects of “warfare, slavery and relocation” on the original nations and peoples of California. He also acknowledged one of his predecessors, Governor Peter Hardeman Burnett, as stating “That a war of extermination will continue to be waged between the two races until the Indian race becomes extinct, must be expected.”

When we examine President Obama’s proclamation in its entirety, we see that he has framed the horrific experiences of our nations and peoples as nothing other than a sad afterthought, in an otherwise cheerful and positive story of the United States. The bulk of President Obama’s Columbus Day message expresses the following language to characterize the aftermath of Columbus’s voyages:

“courage, innovative spirit that carried Christopher Columbus and his crew,” “we celebrate our heritage,” “explorers,” “countless pioneering Americans,” “same spirit of discovery that drove Christopher Columbus…to pursue the unknown,” “engineer and entrepreneurs, sailors and scientists,” “explorers of the physical world and chroniclers of the human spirit,” “broaden our understanding of the time and space we live in as a people,” “let us press forward with renewed determination toward tomorrow’s new frontiers,” “inspired generations of Italian immigrants to follow in his footsteps,” “commemorate this rich heritage.”

Unfortunately, President Obama declined to provide the people of the United States and the world with a more candid and accurate version of truth telling about the aftermath of Columbus’s voyages for Indigenous nations and peoples. Instead, he used a thick cloak of euphemistic language to hide the specific deadly consequences of Christian European colonization that gave birth to the United States.

dmarks said...

But that's Brown. He can say anything, and no one cares. Like when he called his female political opponent a "whore".