Over the past few years, a movement to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day has been gaining serious momentum. When I first read about it, I found it strange that a man from the 15th century was still inciting so much such controversy that a national holiday was being abolished across the United States. After all, that doesn’t exactly happen very often.
Christopher Columbus is responsible for one of the most significant events in human history. But once I started looking into the issue more closely, I was shocked at how little I knew about him, his actions or their consequences. Nothing I learned in social studies or history classes – from elementary school all the way through college – taught me anything beyond what I learned as a kid. And you know what I’m talking about too… the names of his three ships and “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.”
I couldn’t help wondering how this could be possible. And how could friends and family of mine spanning multiple generations know just as little as I did? How can a figure so ingrained in our national character, one who exists as the names of cities, roads, landmarks, rivers, businesses, schools all around us – not to mention the number of statues and monuments of him – fade into the background of our collective conscious?
I wanted answers. I studied this issue at its core from all sides of the controversy – one that involves millions of people – yet as a nation we’re largely indifferent to. We are living in a global society where cultures and generations are increasingly merging. African Americans are still having to convince society that their lives matter. The effects of colonialism that Native Americans have continually faced for centuries continue to go virtually ignored. Italian American groups proudly identify their heritage with an American hero – one that has helped validate their worth as US citizens since their arrival in the Land of Opportunity. Catholic groups want to focus on the person who brought Catholicism and Christianity to the New World. He exists squarely in the center of different cultural experiences and multiple origin stories.
It was clear this controversy simply isn’t about changing the name of a day on the calendar. The strange evolution of Columbus as a symbol of American virtues is what Jonathan Zimmerman aptly describes in the film as, “…an opportunity to discuss the nature of exploration, the nature of discovery, the nature conquest, the nature of exploitation – the nature of race itself. These are all part of the story.”
I heard some good advice a while ago, “go where the silence is and say something.” So I did. I picked up my camera and traveled all across North America as a one-man-band, speaking with cultural leaders, historians, educators, activists and students, trying to unpack how one man continues to be a mass murderer, a cultural icon, a messenger of Christ and an American hero all at once – in a land where he never stepped foot.
Thank for your interest in my film. I hope you enjoy.