I remember when I was much younger that fall always marked a time of change and festivity. In elementary school, I recall drawing pumpkins, making hand turkeys, and hearing about the same stories that were at the core of the American mythos. Dashing heroes down on their luck, which were able to rise to the occasion and achieve greatness, seemed to be a common theme amongst them. One of the more popular stories told using this narrative framework was that of the heroic Christopher Columbus discovering America. Much like the other children in my class, I never questioned Columbus’ apparent heroism and focused on the fact that I got a day off from school. That is until one year when I was in 4th grade my teacher brought out a book providing a Native American perspective to the “discovery of America”. The protagonist, a young child, was very cautious of Christopher Columbus and his menacing crew. The book ended with the protagonist voicing an uncertain future with the occupation of the Spanish characters. I remember very distinctly my teacher asking, “What do you all think about this?”
The question of Columbus’ fame is something at odds with American tradition. It is strange to remember the brutality and the savagery of American conquest and yet be complacent to accept such a notorious figure for having a national holiday. Columbus has less in common with the archetype of an American hero and more in common with an American villain such as Al Capone. Instead, we celebrate Columbus Day as a sort of excuse for sales and for special fall deals. Our television sets feature Columbus stripped down from conquistador to mascot peddling the most recent deals to mark his holiday. This flippant nature towards Columbus, although without negative intentions, fails to recognize the era of terror he ushered in for the millions of indigenous people who dotted the American landscape. It trivializes early American history into a white washed world where American history “started” when Columbus first set foot on the so-called, “new world”. Finally, celebrating Columbus on Columbus Day simply ignores the contributions and the rich culture that American Indians have used to shape our nation into what it is today.
Columbus on Trial
I first want to talk about Columbus as an individual and how he represents nothing close to our idealized portrayal of him. It is important to note that he was by no means some enlightened leader looking to find new adventure; he was simply trying to find a new passage to Asia for the spice trade. This would ultimately make him very rich and he made an effort to try to persuade any court that would listen to take him up on his offer. As a result, Columbus went to the Spanish court to propose his idea. The Spanish court agreed and sent Columbus staffed with a crew and multiple ships to explore his proposed passage route. When he landed in the Americas, he declared that he landed in Asia (notably even when evidence proved to be the contrary Columbus was still set in his this belief). Besides his initial remarks about how easy it would be to enslave the indigenous native population, Columbus also initiated the transatlantic slave trade in 1494. Although unintentional, the Columbus party brought with it a variety of diseases that wiped out the native population who have never had contact with European diseases. This is particularly sad because with Columbus’ arrival there seems to be the prevailing notion that he brought civilization and culture to the new world inhabitants. That point fails to acknowledge the fact that there was a deep, rich history before Columbus and through his brutal oppression and enslavement of the people coupled with diseases, it was all but destroyed.
The modern day movement to eliminate Columbus Day is a direct response to the destruction that Columbus wrought upon the indigenous peoples in America. Additionally, the day would be replaced with something celebrating indigenous history in America. This is truly important for two reasons: one, we need to reassess American history, identifying it as part of a heritage extending hundreds of years before European discovery and two we need to stop the celebration of Columbus because of the destruction he wrought on the new world. The opposition to this growing movement cites the fact that Columbus day has been a holiday tradition and that it is also a celebration of Italian American heritage (since Columbus is from Genoa). However, this ignores some pretty important aspects of the holiday itself. It has only been celebrated until 1937 when Franklin Delano Roosevelt passed it and the holiday was never truly accepted as official. For instance, only 23 states currently that celebrate provide paid vacation for the holiday.
Ever since the 1990’s there has been the movement to eradicate the holiday and replace it with something respectful towards indigenous peoples. South Dakota and Berkley, California were the first to change the name to Native American Day and Indigenous Peoples Day, respectfully. Afterwards an influx of cities and states followed culminating into the present year where nine cities changed the name to something recognizing indigenous peoples. The successes have been meager but they have been a start and it has carried a large following on social media. Some people have tweeted “I’m celebrating Columbus day by walking into a stranger’s home and claiming it as my own. Housewarming party to be announced.” or pictures of Columbus crossed out with denunciations of the holiday. Although the victories have been slow, there does seem to be a movement gaining traction focused on abolishing the holiday and replacing it with something respectful to American Indians.
It is really interesting for me to see the transition of the perception of Columbus Day from a first hand perspective. I noticed that, through my elementary school teacher, how there began to be a challenge to the status quo of the holiday. In the past few years, when Columbus Day comes around, more articles seem to pop up regarding the controversial holiday. As my generation grows older, and more experienced with the less positive aspects of American history, I do not believe that we can celebrate a holiday that represents so much death and suffering. To those who endorse the holiday as a means of tradition remember the fact that less than half of American States deem it important enough to have a paid vacation and that traditions change all the time. One of the factors that make America great is, and always will be, its diversity. The United States have been by no means perfect in accepting other cultures but we have a long and storied history of how we as a collective strove to do better. Perhaps you might believe that changing the name of holiday will not exactly be a perfect win towards diversity in America but it represents a start in recognizing the history and significance of the indigenous people who called this place their home long before a single European set foot on this land. I think that is something that we can all celebrate.
For more information about Columbus Day I recommend that you check out this video.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Reiff Center For Human Rights and Conflict Resolution or Christopher Newport University.