In grade school I learned about the discovery of American with the phrase “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” An event that was ultimately honored in the Columbus Holiday the second Monday of October.
It became a legal holiday in 1971. However it was President Franklin Roosevelt in 1937 who proclaimed Columbus Day a national holiday, largely as a result of intense lobbying by the Knights of Columbus, an influential Catholic organization.
The current renaming of the holiday as Indigenous People’s Day celebrates the people who had lived here for thousands of years prior to Columbus’ “discovery.” The histories of some of these existing populations are increasingly noted in the naming of some of many natural and new landmarks in their tribal territories
For example the Anacosta River in DC is named after the Anacostia Indian peoples who live in what is now DC. There are several dozen geographic features and constructions such as high schools in the areas that incorporate the name.
Is the Issue Historical Truth?
The holiday has been a political issue since Columbus Day was first declared. In 1892, the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ voyage, President Benjamin Harrison declared a one-time national celebration following the lynching in New Orleans where a mob had murdered 11 Italian immigrants.
Continuing today Italian American politicians walk in parades to celebrate the prior contributions and today’s success of the descendants of these immigrants.
As the injustices of the country towards the native populations has become more acknowledged and patterns of systemic wrongs better documented, there has been an increased focused on correcting the tragedies and changing the traditional narrative.
One effort is to dishonor Columbus and remove statues or other names celebrating his role. Last Friday a Philadelphia judge ordered a plywood box hiding Columbus statue for over a year be taking down before the parade today.
Thus another issue is added to the cultural clashes now infecting the political dialogue.
But is it possible that both views could be “truths” and that society benefits from knowing about each historical circumstance and their relevance to current priorities? And what does this example suggest for credit unions?
President Biden has proclaimed this holiday will celebrate both Italian Americans and indigenous communities.
Individual Achievement and Society’s Circumstances
America has had a long tense debate between what is good for society as a whole and the celebration of individual enterprise and success.
Individual effort, passion, ambition and fortitude matter. We celebrate accomplishments in every area of activity from business, to entertainment, to sports to academia. We honor these superstars with prizes, fame and enormous fortunes.
However much of that success depends on context—the training, the resources, the organizations and the examples that make individual achievement possible. Everyone benefits from this social infrastructure and the connections that make success possible.
In credit unions this same tension exists. Current leaders take actions which they believe are in the best interests of their organization sometimes oblivious to the legacy they inherited. They see a different, more “modern” future than their forebears. This limited grasp of both history and the kind of future being passed on, could undermine the future of the cooperative system.
Cooperatives were built on human connection. Every society needs these organizations so individuals can prosper and help each other. Today when three and four generations of members are separated from their credit union’s roots by merger, the ties of loyalty that bind are broken.
Credit unions need persons who want to build a better tomorrow for their own organization and the entire system. It is OK to be self-interested. However that motivation needs to be tempered with honor.
The charge against Columbus is he had no respect for the native people he encountered. Only the search of gold mattered. Many Europeans who followed had the same belief in their own superiority and right to ownership of the seemingly open lands.
We can see issues more clearly with the benefit of history. But it is an error if in our own lives and responsibility within coops today we believe we are immune from such hubris. The future of credit unions needs innovation. But it also requires character that respects the legacies we all inherited to achieve our positions of responsibility.