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Unheeded history: Why Indigenous Peoples’ Day is overdue | COMMENTARY

The headless torso of the Christopher Columbus statue is loaded onto a flatbed truck after being recovered from the Inner Harbor in July. Now, the Baltimore City Council is considering a measure to change the holiday celebrated on the second Monday in October from Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples' Day.
The headless torso of the Christopher Columbus statue is loaded onto a flatbed truck after being recovered from the Inner Harbor in July. Now, the Baltimore City Council is considering a measure to change the holiday celebrated on the second Monday in October from Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples' Day. (Jerry Jackson)

Spanish-born American author and philosopher George Santayana is generally credited with the oft-quoted line about how those who don’t remember the past are doomed to repeat it. He died in 1952. Sixty-eight years later, a corollary is overdue: Those who have never known an honest accounting of the past are doomed to repeat it, as are their descendants.

What some see as the destruction of U.S. history — where Confederate generals are no longer hailed as heroes with statues in public squares or their names plastered on military bases, for example — is often something closer to a reasonable reaction to a more honest accounting of it. And so it is with the upcoming Columbus Day holiday. The lessons so many of us were taught that portrayed Christopher Columbus as a heroic figure (that he discovered America or proved the earth was round) are untrue, while relevant details of his voyage (his profit motive and the harm he caused by enslaving and mutilating Indigenous peoples) are shamefully overlooked.

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That’s why the proposal submitted this week to the Baltimore City Council to rename Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples' Day is a welcome turn toward both scholarship and values. Other communities are making the same transition. Just last week, Howard County Executive Calvin Ball announced that his county would no longer celebrate Columbus Day and would honor Native Americans instead. Montgomery and Prince George’s counties have moved in that direction as well, along with a growing list of cities across the country from Bangor, Maine, to Burbank, California. South Dakota was the first state to make the second Monday of October adopt Indigenous Peoples' Day, and that was 30 years ago. This would make Baltimore neither an early adopter nor especially progressive.

Still, the City Council debate on the issue is likely to become heated. Many Italian Americans see Columbus Day as a moment to honor their own heritage and contributions to this country. This is unfortunate, as there is no shortage of people worthy of such recognition who have not supported colonialism, oppression and injustice. It’s unfortunate, too, that the reconsideration of Columbus has gotten overly emotional and disruptive at times. The protesters who tore down the Columbus statue in downtown Baltimore on July 4th did their cause no favor, for example. Whatever moral high ground is held by skepticism of Columbus, hero worship is lost when those who object so easily embrace vandalism and destruction of property.

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That’s what makes the proposal before the City Council so important as not only a recognition of the proper context of what happened in 1492 but a demonstration that Americans are capable of correcting their flawed views of the past in a rational, reasonable and civil manner. Such an approach not only leads to a more accurate view of history but also respects the emotional investments of Italian Americans in their heritage and immigrant struggles.

And Columbus is just one historic episode deserving a second look. Recently, the Maryland Lynching Truth and Reconciliation Commission launched what is expected to be a three-year effort to better document public lynchings in the state of African Americans between 1854 and 1933. How much do average Marylanders even know about these brutal, racist killings — an estimated 4,400 of them taking place in Southern states during the decades that followed the Civil War? Black people were terrorized, tortured and murdered, often because of some perceived slight toward a white person and in front of large groups of cheering spectators. Maryland’s last known lynching in 1933, for example, took place in Princess Anne after 23-year-old George Armwood was accused of assaulting a white woman. He was dragged out of the jail, beaten, stabbed and hanged, his body tied to a courthouse telephone poll and burned. None of the perpetrators was ever convicted of a crime.

There’s another famous saying about history: that it is written by the victors. And that might be applied in both these cases — to Columbus whose deeds are overstated and human rights violations overlooked and to the victims of lynchings who are overlooked and the impact of their deaths understated. It is past time to set both records straight.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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