Just a thought

October 13, 2011

Columbus Day came and went this week with little fanfare. Some folks were off for a Monday holiday; others had to work.

It wasn't the focal point of a lot of celebration, pomp or public pageantry, though in some communities and in some places it is a rather important holiday. Unfortunately, Christopher Columbus has fallen from favor in the lexicon of historic figures who are regarded as heroes. His big claim to fame — unbeknownst to him, by the way — had long been his discovery of the Americas. He thought he had made it to Asia.

Curiously, the European now credited with spanning the Atlantic, Leif Erikson, was also celebrated this week, as it officially falls on Oct. 9. No doubt just as Christopher Columbus remains a key historic hero in the Italian-American community, Leif Erikson is celebrated by those of Scandanavian descent in this country.

To a large degree, American holidays that honor people of a particular national origin come into being as much to honor that culture as they do to commemorate a key historic event.

It's widely accepted these days that neither Erikson nor Columbus could claim credit for discovering the Americas because when they arrived there were already people here. In a way, their discovery was akin to the so-called discovery by an outsider of a particularly quaint and vacation spot that isn't particularly commercial.

Following this analogy to an extreme, Erikson — whose discovery is likely to have inspired Columbus to sail west — and Columbus had a comparable effect on the quaint places they discovered. The local folk who had been doing just fine for generations found their territories invaded by newcomers who may have thought the new places were OK, but were also eager to bring all the comforts of home.

It's hard to complain about the result. In this country, we have a wealthy and powerful nation that probably wouldn't be what it was were in not for the European discovery and its aftermath.

In short, Columbus didn't discover America, nor did Erikson. They did start something that led to what we've got today, and that's worth celebrating. And it's also worth taking pride in as Italian-Americans, Scandanavian-Americans and any other brand of American who is proud to be here.

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