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What Happened to Columbus Day at School?

For nearly a quarter century, on and off, The Grauer School dutifully listed Columbus Day on our calendar because it is a U.S. federal holiday.

For the past 25 years or more, we confess experiencing mixed feelings about this listing. Some years we did not list it. Some years it seemed fun to have a Monday off.

Columbus goes down in the annals of great world explorers. While he did arrive in the "New World" when he cast anchor in the Bahamas, he never made it to the United States or North America. When you think about that, it's amazing that he gets a U.S. national holiday. Especially since scholars widely agree that the Vikings landed on the continent 500 years earlier.

Sunrise above The Grauer School in Encinitas - September 29, 2017

Traditionally, Native Americans are believed to have descended from northeast Asia, arriving over a land bridge between Siberia and Alaska some 12,000 years ago and then migrating across North and South America.

When Columbus arrived in the "New World" around 1500, there were around 10 million Native Americans in what is now the United States.

While Italians had always been a part of American history, it wasn't until the 1820s that Italian immigrants began moving to the United States in sizable numbers. The largest wave of Italian immigration occurred between 1880 and the start of World War I in 1914. In 1892, President Benjamin Harrison called for a national observance of Columbus Day. That marked the 400th anniversary of Columbus' landfall in the Bahamas.

By then, around the turn of the twentieth century, there were of course nothing like 10 million Native American's left in the continental United States: there were an estimated 300,000. What happened to cause this massive population shift is often referred to as genocide (but it includes disease, malnutrition, starvation, rape, murder, torture, and war), and this has always been a source of controversy and pain.

Indisputably, European and U.S. settler colonial projects unleashed massively destructive, deadly forces on Native peoples and communities, but no one seems to know if much of that started with the first contact with Europeans like Columbus.

Until the mid-1700s, two and a half centuries after he sailed the ocean blue, Christopher Columbus was not widely known among most Americans, nor were the Vikings. (The first Columbus statue was not erected until 1792, in Baltimore.)

In 1968, when the Indian Civil Rights Act was passed, Natives gained the right to free speech, the right to a jury, and protection from unreasonable search and seizure. (Free speech was of course a First Amendment right established almost 200 years earlier, in 1791.)

In 1971 Columbus Day became a federal holiday in all 50 states after Congress passed a law declaring the second Monday in October Columbus Day.

Though Italian Americans have not suffered even remotely as tragically as Indigenous Americans (Indians), Italian Americans experienced serious prejudice and negative stereotyping in the twentieth century as a part of anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic, white supremacist, and nativist group activities. Some of these people value Columbus Day, since Columbus was Italian, although he was sailing for the Spanish monarchy, in the name of Christianity, not Italy.

As a school, we offer up all these dates and events from our perspective. In sum, Columbus Day is not the best way for our school to honor our great Italian Americans or our heritage as U.S. citizens, and it is offensive to Native Americans.

In 2015, in response to a student proposal, The Grauer School renamed Columbus Day, "Columbus Day/Native American Day." We love student proposals. The proposal, written by then-senior David Lilburn (class of 2016), suggested the title of Native American Day, but we did not want to offend Italian Americans—some love Columbus Day. And we were holding on to the rationale that there were some ethics attached to honoring official national holidays. We were aware that our logic was incomplete: ethically speaking, worrying about not offending anyone is not always the same as doing the right thing. We were trying to find the biggest, most universal value we could here. We still are. We always will be.

The Grauer School from above at Sunrise - September 29, 2017

All around, changes are going on. On October 12th, our southern neighbor, Mexico, has a national holiday known as Día de la Raza, which is something like "Day of Racial Identity." Just this season, as of the very week I began writing the first draft of this column, Los Angeles changed Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day, as many cities have. Our school, on the other hand, has just dropped the whole of it.

America is a place of continual shifting and evolving tradition. On the annual day I innocently celebrated Columbus Day as a child, today's parents will find on The Grauer School calendar: nothing. Just a date. This was not the result of a board proclamation or administrative mandate, protest or reconciliation, political compromise or government action. It was more like bones that crumbled into dust as the body was lifted from the box, or like the memory of a past friendship that eventually faded away and we don't even know when.

It is always sad to see traditions lose relevance and die, just as it was hard to watch some of those Confederate statues topple this year, statues so beautiful for their art but not their meanings or messages. (For the record, there are a ton of Columbus statues and monuments all over the U.S.)

Jordan W. '18, Rory F. '18, and Nick G. '18 from Grauer's Shockwave Robotics Team, teaching a young robotics enthusiast how to drive the team's robot at the Encinitas Oktoberfest event - October 1, 2017

Don't plan on running out of political agendas for our nation's schools any time soon. But for our school, October 12 is no longer an interesting day to honor Columbus' momentous landing in the Bahamas or the onset of the age of discovery; nor is it a celebration of our rich Italian heritage; nor is it the right way to honor the indigenous people living in our nation, their terrible troubles or glorious traditions. It will be just a school day where there will be history class as usual, or else it will be a faculty inservice day.

There are now in our country about 4.5 million Native Americans and Alaska Natives and around 17 million Americans who claim Italian ancestry. These groups have had invaluable impact on the development of our melting pot called The United States of America. As a school, let us honor their heritages permanently through our studies and our actions even if not by national proclamation.

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