Indigenous Peoples’ Day 2018

Five hundred and twenty-six years ago, Cristòffa Cómbo discovered America after convincing King Ferdinand II to let him prove the Earth was round. Or, at least, so goes the popular story.

First, to be clear, Cómbo’s arrival in the New World was actually on the 12th of October, but the holiday was set to coincide with Canadian Thanksgiving. (This is, of course, merely a minor issue, but if we’re to celebrate an event, we should, in my view, get the damn day right.) Cómbo also wasn’t the first to come up with the idea that the Earth is round. Much of his difficulty in securing funding came not from controversy on the existence of a westward journey from Europe to Asia, but his severe underestimation of its distance: he believed the journey to be a mere 3 900 ㎞, when the common — and still a bit short — estimate was more than five times that. (He also had difficulties from his demands for a grandiose title, to be made governor of any lands he found, and to receive 10% of all revenue from those lands.) Still, though he could not find support for his foolhardy plan, the Spanish monarchy was at least intrigued enough to offer him free food and lodging, as well as a sturdy allowance. Eventually, the monarchy, celebrating its conquest of Granada and wanting more, decided to grant Cómbo’s demands, despite the impracticality of his plan. Were it not for a then-unknown continent, Cómbo and his crew would have died.

Still, discovering an entire continent is probably a big enough achievement to recognise, no matter how much luck — and how little intent — was involved. The problem, of course, is that while the land was a new discovery for Cómbo and other Europeans, it wasn’t uninhabited. (Cómbo, somewhat ironically, did not claim the discovery: he went his entire life insisting that he had, in fact, found a westward journey to Asia.) Cómbo began the history of Europeans killing, raping, enslaving, and generally subjugating indigenous Americans, both for profit and for mere entertainment.

Given that Cómbo was a terrible person, I’ve no desire to celebrate him. Still, in a society that does have a holiday for him, it’s necessary to at least be aware of the date. I therefore choose to, instead, use the day to recognise the struggles, histories, and cultures of indigenous Americans. And if any stores want to celebrate him, remember that the true spirit of that day would be to walk in like you own the place and grab whatever you want.

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