Monday, October 12, 2009

Columbus Day, Tish B'av and Native Americans

Today is Columbus Day. If you're a European American, it's customary to wish someone a happy Columbus Day. It's a holiday I celebrated gladly every year as a child back in New York City. I've lived in Italian neighborhoods just as much as I've lived in Irish neighborhoods (not to mention Latino and black neighborhoods). Both holidays (Columbus and St. Patrick's) are extremely popular on Staten Island, no matter your background. But regarding Columbus Day we always celebrated it as the day America was "discovered" by Christopher Columbus. We'd recite the names of his three ships, the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria; Memorize the nice little poetic device of "In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue" and hear about how he, and all those after him, brought European civilization to North America. Columbus Day was always a fun holiday. After all, I had the day off from school! What more could you ask for?

In August, there's a little known Jewish holy day called Tish B'av. Even most Jews hardly know about it. It's a holy day you never say have a happy one about. It commemorates the day the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed, first by the Babylonians and then centuries later by the Romans. According to tradition, these events both happened on the same day, the ninth of Av, which is what Tish B'av means. So this day holds a special and very somber meaning for Jews, since it commemorates a day of disaster for their people not just once, but many times, culminating of course in the modern holocaust.

Meanwhile, back to Columbus Day. How about the opinion of those who already lived in the land he "discovered"? This day, which is so celebrated by millions of Americans as a day of great discovery, is seen as the darkest day in Native American history. It's a day that marks the beginning of their end as a people connected to their land. It's a day that marks the beginning of a genocide that still has not been fully, or even partially, in most American's eyes, recognized or admitted. What of the enslavement of American Indians by Columbus himself? What of the consequent eradication of large swaths of peoples from the Alleganies all the way to the west coast?

Columbus Day is celebrated as a day of discovery.
Tish B'av is remembered as a day of mourning.
Native Americans also see this day as a day of mourning.
This day is their Tish B'av.

Let us walk in their steps and mourn with them. But better yet, let us walk with them towards a better future. We must be honest about what has happened. To lie about it is to perpetuate the crimes of the past. But we must move forward.

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