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December 11, 2017

Why I didn’t celebrate ‘Apologize to Indigenous Peoples Day’

(ken yee/ Flickr)

The town of Amherst has a long history of opposing Columbus Day. In fact, it was the first town in Massachusetts to officially drop the holiday, after an eighth-grade class lobbied attendees at a 2016 town meeting to stop “celebrating genocide.”

The recent animosity toward Christopher Columbus isn’t without good reason. Remembered as the man who discovered our country, history reveals that he never even stepped foot in North America. He did, however, explore Central America, South America and the Caribbean, installing himself as governor of several islands. His reign was bloody, and he enslaved and brutalized native people to the point where they began committing mass suicide. After two years, nearly half the native population he ruled over was dead. Make no mistake, Columbus was a terrible man and should be remembered as such.

Yet the official academic calendar of the University of Massachusetts still recognizes Columbus Day, so imagine my surprise when I received an email from my economics advisor, informing me that classes on Monday, Oct. 9 were canceled for “Apologize to Indigenous Peoples Day.” A little poking around on the internet revealed that yes, this is indeed a real thing. The idea that Columbus Day should be renamed to Indigenous Peoples Day is nothing new, but the apologetic strain of this movement is just now gaining more prominence. An editorial in the Los Angeles Times suggested that the California government should issue “an official public apology for the state’s history of mistreating native peoples.” In Australia, they celebrate “National Sorry Day,” an “annual day of atonement” for the way that the government ripped children away from Aboriginal tribes in the early 20th century. Government officials seem to have decided that they bear responsibility for the actions carried out by their predecessors decades or even centuries ago. They aren’t the only ones.

These different manifestations of the apology movement have one thing in common—they believe that the people of today must apologize for the way history played out. Let me be clear: It’s essential that we ensure that indigenous people are treated fairly in today’s society. We have a moral responsibility to make sure the present doesn’t resemble the past. We need to ensure that indigenous people have greater access to education, protect their sacred sites that remain intact and give many tribes the federal recognition they have been denied. But while it’s important to recognize the dark history of how certain groups have been treated in this country and around the world, the notion that white people bear any responsibility for the actions of their ancestors is nothing short of absurd.

In an opinion article in the Wall Street Journal, Shelby Steele wrote that “White guilt is a mock guilt, a pretense of real guilt, a shallow etiquette of empathy, pity and regret.” He also noted that this guilt is “the heart and soul of contemporary liberalism.” Steele tells the story of one Republican, who felt he had to vote for President Obama, because he “couldn’t tell my grandson that I didn’t vote for the first Black president.”

I, for one, refuse to subscribe to the politics of white guilt. I will not apologize for genocides committed hundreds of years before my birth, or for a system of slavery whose abolishment predates my first words by centuries. They may have been carried out by people who look like me, but I played no part in these crimes and bear no responsibility. Still, colonialism has drastically altered the course of history in a way that has unquestionably benefited people like me. If Christopher Columbus and others like him hadn’t committed these atrocities, millions of indigenous people would still be alive today, and much of our lands would still belong to them. The system we live in likely wouldn’t exist. But while I may have profited from the legacies of these atrocities, it has been without my consent. I never wanted that to happen, and won’t be apologizing to anyone for it. Asking people like me to seek forgiveness is like blaming Californians, who voted overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton, to apologize for Donald Trump’s buffoonery on the world stage.

When my advisor sent out that email, I truly believe that she had good intentions. But this type of rhetoric actually does more harm than good. Frankly, most white people aren’t receptive to the idea that they were born with guilt just by virtue of their whiteness.  A poll conducted by the 2016 American National Election Studies (ANES) asked white Americans, “When you learn about racism, how much guilt do you feel due to your association with the white race?” As it turns out, 15.6 percent of respondents answered, “a little” and 63.3 percent said “none.” The message is clear: If you appeal to guilt, rather than good nature, you won’t be able to convince anybody that things need to change. Rectifying inequalities must be about respect, not responsibility. Pointing fingers doesn’t bring about reparation, it just reinforces division. People don’t and shouldn’t feel guilty about what men like Christopher Columbus did hundreds of years ago, actions that they had no part in.

Still, I did not honor Columbus on Monday, nor do I plan on doing so any other day for that matter. Just don’t expect to find me apologizing for anything that happened in the 15th century anytime soon.

Brad Polumbo is a Collegian columnist who can be reached at or found on Twitter @Brad_Polumbo.

3 Responses to “Why I didn’t celebrate ‘Apologize to Indigenous Peoples Day’”
  1. Don Honda says:

    DAVE NEESE: Cleaning up our historical act

    “We must seize this opportunity to indulge ourselves in smug moral righteousness, in “virtue-signaling,” as it has come to be named. “

  2. Don Honda says:

    Apparently, “native americans” were not the first “indigenous” people here in North America. Evidence is mounting that they pushed out a previous population of European-centric origin:
    The Very First Americans May Have Had European Roots
    Some early Americans came not from Asia, it seems, but by way of Europe
    Ancient DNA reveals that the ancestors of modern-day Native Americans had European roots. The discovery sheds new light on European prehistory and also solves old mysteries concerning the colonisation of America.
    Radical theory of first Americans places Stone Age Europeans in Delmarva 20,000 years ago
    Controversy erupted after skeletal remains were found in Kennewick, Washington, in 1996. This skeleton, estimated to be 9,000 years old, had a long cranium and narrow face—features typical of people from Europe, the Near East or India—rather than the wide cheekbones and rounder skull of an American Indian.

  3. SittingBull says:

    Brad, you seem to be the only person in Amherst who “gets it.” You are smart beyond your years. Most of all, you have what is so sorely lacking these days – common sense!

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