In the "flyover" states of Kansas, Oklahoma and Nebraska, Columbus Day is not always that big a deal. There are a few parades here and there and obviously, the Federal holiday is recognized when people try to go to the post office. Most businesses don't recognize it much and many municipal offices stay open. The pioneer and settlement history is different, and at least growing up, this writer tended to think of Columbus Day as something that 'they observed on the East Coast.'
Part of the reason may be that Columbus Day has been only intermittently observed throughout the states. Some Latin American countries observe something quite different which is called Dia de la Raza, roughly, the "day of the races" or when the various peoples of the New and Old World's finally met and formed, in many cases, a new people. Many in Latin America commemorate this day as a day of resistance against invaders, as exemplified in Venezuela, where the holiday is referred, in English, to as the Day of Indigenous Resistance.
At least growing up, there was always the sense that Columbus should really not get the same kind of honorable holiday as Martin Luther King or Abraham Lincoln, but still, there is something important to remember about that fateful meeting, now over 500 years ago.
It may also be that Oklahoma, Nebraska and Kansas were once part of what was called Indian Territory; you know, those parcels of land that were set aside to dump tribes from the East into when they got a little restive or resisted white folks just taking land that had already been promised to them by treaty. Once you know the history of a place, that this lovely piece of rural real estate became yours because some yahoos massacred natives, who weren't actually in their original home to begin with, so that homesteading immigrant Germans wouldn't have to compete, well, the magic just sort of goes out of the Manifest Destiny narrative.
Relocated natives hang on in what's left of their reserves, and in Kansas, many of the eastern counties bear their names: Shawnee, Potawami, Delaware, Wyandot, continuing the witness of who came before, who remains. Even Kansas gets its name from a semi-nomadic group of natives, who are part of the larger Siouan language group, related to the Osage and now centered in Oklahoma. This Kansan grew up knowing that every inch of the land she stood on was paid for in blood.
So, it's probably appropriate that Dia de los Muertos (made plural by Dias) occurs during the same month as Columbus Day. In one month we can remember when the trouble started here, the price and the ancestors who paid.
Aztecs gave Mictecacihuatl, the goddess of the underworld, the ancestral honors of the season. Although they originally celebrated their commemoration of the ancestors in our August and Catholics moved the holiday toward All Saints Day, the image of the goddess remains in popular renditions of Katrina, who presides over most Dia de los Muertos processions. She swallows the stars every day and vomits them up again at night. It is to her the spirits of the dead descend, and she would devour the world whole if regular sacrifices and honors weren't paid.
The Aztecs, or Mexica as they call themselves (because they are not dead and gone), were imperialist conquerors too, so they probably understood Cortes better than most, than they would've cared to admit. Their neighbors didn't like them and Cortes exploited that and the vulnerability that the Mexica had to European diseases. Still, the natives fought for every inch of their beloved city Tenochtitlan, now Mexico City. The Spanish were impressed, but they also didn't honor their promises to their native allies who helped in the defeat of Moctezuma's forces.
And so it went.
Now we're supposed to honor a man who ushered in, wittingly or not, since he was not a saint and had no respect for the natives he met either, the emptying of two continents, by warfare, deceit and disease, just so a few lucky (and they were only lucky, not chosen), newly emergent European powers could get theirs and try to put the Muslims and Chinese in their 'proper places?'
It's impossible to know what could have been now, but there is a very real sense that the world lost something important in the devastating of the indigenous peoples of the Americas. The disease part probably couldn't have been avoided, but the arrogance of Europeans was a choice, sometimes a deliberately planned out option. Pizarro made the choice to send small pox infested blankets to the Inca rulers. The United States Congress made a choice to forcibly expel the Cherokee after they had remodeled their society along "American" lines and applied for statehood. These were choices, not inevitable outcomes.
Nothing can bring the dead back. But we can remember. So instead of Columbus Day, make this the beginning of your personal Dias de los Muertos, your Days of the Dead. Think about your ancestors and passed loved ones. Remember that the land you stand on has been paid for in blood many times over, and not just by veterans overseas, but by patriots who fought and died here for their families, against an endless tide of foreign invaders.
Just be humbled by what you don't know about them, even though you probably eat food that they first cultivated, like corn, potatoes, tomatoes, pumpkin, green beans, chocolate, vanilla. You probably celebrate Thanksgiving Day, inspired by their harvest festivals. You live in a country that adopted the bald eagle, the same symbol used by the Iroquois, as a national label.
Dia de los Muertos celebrations have been spreading all over the world and maybe it's appropriate to consider a refocusing of this holiday.
It's time now to build the ofrenda, the altar of the dead that Mexicans use to remember the dearly departed. Set up the picture of Katrina, sprinkle the top with marigolds and mums, light the candles and incense, and recall the day the Underworld swallowed all the living stars in the world.