Why do we celebrate Columbus Day? Supposedly we are celebrating the discovery of the New World by the first European to land here.
But he’s not, and he didn’t.Columbus landed in the Bahamas. He began his association with the New World by cheating the lookout who first sighted land out of the life-long pension promised by the Crown, by claiming after the fact that he’d seen a light on shore earlier. (But didn’t happen to mention it at the time.)
He island-hopped, and eventually started up some colonies, claiming the land for Spain. He never, ever admitted that the lands he found weren’t part of Asia, because that’s what he wanted them to be. And we spend a whole federal holiday on this guy?
Spain did eventually get a foothold on what is now the United States. While we should know that and acknowledge it, the Bahamas aren’t the North American continent. Columbus came for gold, and upon coming into contact with the natives planned to convert them to Catholicism and subjugate them. This he then did. But these are not values of ours, and I don’t think this is something we should be celebrating.
And what do we do to celebrate Columbus Day anyway? We take the day off. And that’s it! We don’t plant trees, or decorate them, or eat certain foods, or play certain games. Is this fun? I think we can do a lot better than this.
The first Europeans to land in North America were the Vikings, five hundred years before Columbus was born. Striking out in open boats across the seas, seeking further lands after planting colonies in Iceland and Greenland, the men who discovered North America were the first to make it the stuff of legends. Vinland, they called it, and Markland, land of wine and forests.
Leif Ericson sailed to Newfoundland in the 10th century, after hearing stories from a sailor blown off course who sighted land three days’ sail west of Greenland. Leif spent two winters in Newfoundland, and later planted a small settlement that lasted several years. His brother Thorvald was killed by an arrow in a fight with the natives, and later a trading party was attacked and driven off by natives who fought with catapults!
Trade between the Norse and the Native Americans in fur and wood, milk and cloth, continued for four hundred years, but permanent settlements by the Norse were impossible, as the fierce Native Americans always eventually fought them off and drove them out.
Three hundred years before Lief Ericson landed in Newfoundland, Glome the Viking set up a series of runestones in what is now Oklahoma, claiming his valley on the Poteau River. To get to the Poteau river by boat you have to sail up the Mississippi River, then up the Arkansas River, and then up the Poteau River. This suggests that back home, Glome did something very bad indeed, or even more likely, stole something really valuable, and had to go a really long way to feel safe. Glome set up a runestone that said “Glome’s Valley,” and another one that says “The gods’ good luck to Glome.” And I hope he lived happily ever after with his gang of thieves and whatever it was he stole. Perhaps it was the boat. Perhaps it was his chief’s daughter. Or his chief’s wife.
Today, many Americans share both a European and a Native American heritage. And in the mix with the adventurers who came to the New World to discover new lands and make a better life, were the people who were carried here in the bottom of the boat, as indentured servants, or slaves, and made the best of it and survived. Explorers, adventurers, survivors and warriors, they are all a part of what we are today.
I suggest that instead of Columbus Day, we hold a two-day celebration. The first day will be Viking Day, celebrating the courage of a people who braved the unknown to discover new worlds. Now that would be fun! After all, these are the kind of people we come from. And these are the kind of people we will be again, when we stop wasting our money on stupid wars, and get started on that colony that we are going to put on Mars, sooner or later.
The second day of the celebration should be a day of celebration of the heritage and culture of the intrepid Native Americans, who also came here from far away, discovered this great continent, and made it their home. And let’s honor the people that fought off the Vikings time after time for hundreds of years, and never let them get a foothold on this continent. We should end with a ceremony of remembrance and acknowledgment for what happened when the Europeans did finally come back with infinitely superior weapons, and take over this land. So many Americans have roots in both European and Native American cultures. This would give us an opportunity to honor our history, from every point of view.
Viking Day! Native American Day! Can’t you just think of hundreds of things we could do to celebrate these two important parts of our heritage? Drums and sword fights! Ax throwing, archery, and catapult contests! Feasting and dancing! Pageants and boat races! Now that would be a holiday worth celebrating. It would be meaningful, and it would be fun.
What Columbus did is directly linked to the history of Spain, and the countries where Spanish influence is still important. But it is remote from us. It’s not really our own history.
Now that we know better, let’s have a holiday that honors the Vikings, the first of our European ancestors to make it here. And while we’re at it, let’s also honor the Native Americans, who found this place first, and who gave them such a hard time.
Carol Wolf is a playwright, author and teacher who has lived in O’Neals for twelve years. Her novel, Summoning, was published by Night Shade Books in April, 2012, and her story, The Gate, has been included in an anthology of stories called Magical Mayhem, published last week by Ambush Books. She is presently teaching a free playwriting workshop at North Fork Library, and can be contacted through her website at thecarolwolf.com