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Double holiday, single flag

Monday was a federal holiday. Early in the morning I hung the American flag by the front door, as I do on all U.S. holidays except the rainy ones. And then I wondered: When the dogwalkers and exercisers and young parents with strollers pass by, what do they take the display of the flag on their neighbors' house to mean?

Flying the flag used to mean simply and profoundly, "I love my country. I'm grateful to live in the land of the free and the home of the brave." It was the ultimate statement of unity, without a word spoken.

For me and, I hope, most Americans, that is still what the display of the flag means. Yet there is no escaping the evidence that the U.S. flag is increasingly being used to take sides. When it flies from the bed of a pickup truck, are we supposed to recognize code for partisanship? Maybe not, maybe so. For certain, what the invaders of the U.S. Capitol meant by waving flags as they broke through doors and windows is not what the flag on top of the dome meant. On that infamous day the flag in the hands of lawbreakers was used to divide, not unite.

The one place where the message of the flag resonates as utterly clear and undisputed is in a cemetery. My father, an Army veteran of World War II and the Korean conflict era, flew the flag on holidays and, once he retired, daily. In his last years he made sure his children knew that he must have that service medallion flag holder by his headstone. The cemeteries are filled with others who fought under the flag but did not come home to fly it as he did.

The holiday for which I put out the flag last week had been celebrated as Columbus Day since Congress declared it so in 1934. That must have been a real boost, in the middle of the Great Depression, to have a presumed hero to celebrate, not only for Italian Americans but other descendants of immigrants. Each new wave of immigrant groups had endured social and job discrimination; the proclamation put that in perspective for them and those who lorded it over them.

By the 1970s, awareness of the dark side of Christopher Columbus and others who followed him from Europe was spreading beyond the Native American communities descended from people those men had oppressed. Schools continued to teach half the story — Niña, Pinta, Santa Maria — but some states acknowledged the injustice earlier than others and began teaching a truer picture of what happened.

This year, for the first time, a presidential proclamation incorporated the other side of the historic record in the federal holiday. Indigenous Peoples' Day, known in some places as Native Americans Day, is from now on part of the celebration on the second Monday in October.

In the proclamation establishing Indigenous Peoples' Day on the same day as Columbus Day, President Biden recognized the "inherent sovereignty" of those who were here before Columbus and committed to "honoring the Federal Government's trust and treaty obligations to Tribal Nations." The president said he was acting "in honor of our diverse history and all who have contributed to shaping this nation."

E Pluribus Unum. The United States and its flag belong to all its people. That's what I meant to say when I put the flag out on Monday.

Lisa McGinley is a member of The Day Editorial Board. 

 

 

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