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Instead of Columbus, let’s celebrate the audacity of exploration

Late last year, Belfast became the first Maine community to designate the second Monday in October Indigenous Peoples’ Day instead of Columbus Day, on the heels of Alaska Gov. Bill Walker issuing an executive order to make the same change in his state. Vermont switched to Indigenous Peoples’ Day earlier this month.

The change, which is gaining momentum, was begun by Berkeley, California, which made the change in 1992, recognizing that Columbus didn’t discover a land where people were already living. South Dakota has celebrated Native American Day since 1990.

The renaming push has been met with backlash from some Italian-Americans, who said the change disrespected their heritage. Others said the cities and states were rewriting history.

If history is our guide, Columbus Day shouldn’t be celebrated in the United States. Christopher Columbus didn’t reach the U.S. During his first voyage to what is today the Americas, he came ashore on the island that is now Haiti and the Dominican Republic. He later went to what is now Central and South America. He thought he was in Asia.

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Other explorers — namely Vikings, such as Leif Erikson — made landfall on North America, in what is now Newfoundland, centuries before Columbus set sail. John Cabot (an Italian explorer whose real name was Giovanni Caboto) came to present-day Newfoundland in 1497 and claimed it for England.

But none of these explorers discovered America or North America, because indigenous people had long been living on the continent.

In his book “A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World,” author Tony Horwitz wonders why so much emphasis is put on Columbus and Plymouth when others had come to the continent first and significant exploration happened between 1492 and 1620. During his study and journeys for the book, Horwitz was surprised to learn the first colony in present-day New England wasn’t at Plymouth (where the rock, by the way, was shockingly unimpressive) but at Fort St. George in Popham (in present-day Phippsburg, Maine), a place he had never heard of.

“History isn’t a sport, where coming first means everything,” he writes. “The outposts at Popham and Cuttyhunk were quickly abandoned, as were most of the early French and Spanish settlements. Plymouth endured, the English prevailed in the contest for the continent, and the Anglo-American Protestants — New Englanders in particular — molded the new nation’s memory.

“And so a creation myth arose, of Pilgrim Fathers seeding a new land with their piety and work ethic. The winners wrote the history,” he continues. “But the losers matter, especially in the history of early America.”

The “losers” were the people who were already here when the explorers arrived; those Columbus called “los Indios,” Italian Giovanni da Verrazzano dubbed “la genta de la terra” and the English called “the naturals.”

Their stories didn’t make the history that the winners wrote, but they too should be honored and appreciated.

So, here’s a modest proposal: Instead of honoring a man who did not discover a land that was already inhabited and who never made it to what is now the U.S., let’s celebrate the explorers.

Let’s honor those, of any culture, who have the audacity to strike out for places and things unknown. Brave souls such as polar explorer Adm. Robert Peary, whose home on Eagle Island in Casco Bay recently was named a National Historic Landmark and who said, “Find a way, or make one.” Invaluable guides such as Sacagawea, who, while carrying her baby son, accompanied Meriwether Lewis and William Clark on their journey along the Missouri River, serving as an interpreter and teaching them what was edible and how to make clothes out of animal hides. And, even Christopher Columbus, for although he may not have discovered America, he had a lot of gumption to set sail on long journeys to lands unknown.

Let’s honor their collective audacity.


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