You may have heard by now enough of your peers on social media advocate for the celebration of Indigenous People's Day. It may no longer be news to you that a rising amount of voices is taking issue with the commemoration of Christopher Columbus with his own holiday. But, how can what is frankly just an ordinary federal holiday be a source of such tension, in need of re-examining? Christopher Columbus is the central hero of the American narrative, for not only the United States but all of western civilization as he discovered the New World for all of us to settle and thrive upon, right?- At least that's what we're taught. The culturally-resistant right-wing media will surely eat up the idea of Indigenous Peoples' Day, hosting panelists on Fox News Segments and publishing a day's worth of Breitbart articles dismissing it as another facet of 'the political-correctness agenda,' another example of how liberals are trying to 'destroy America and its culture,' and 're-write history.' However, the reality is, the idea Indigenous Peoples' Day doesn't re-write history, instead it does the exact opposite, correcting history and restoring an accurate depiction of the events of Columbus' arrival that Columbus Day actually seeks to re-write and distort. So, what is Indigenous Peoples' Day? Well first, let's ask ourselves what exactly Columbus Day is anyway?
Columbus Day is that early-October federal holiday when most government buildings and banks are closed in 'observance.' We are all taught from elementary that 'in 1492, Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue, the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria too....etc,' and that such may have been the most pivotal moment in the history of western civilization, as Columbus' expedition 'discovered the New World' and opened it for European colonization. Columbus' arrival has been commemorated well before becoming a federal holiday. New York and other U.S. cities of the time celebrated its tricentennial in 1792 (1). However, establishing Columbus Day as a federal holiday took more time, and was accomplished largely through the lobbying efforts of the Knights of Columbus, a cultural organization dedicated to promoting Roman-Catholic values and culture in the United States, which at the time of its founding, was much more dominantly Protestant (2). Christopher Columbus, of Genoa, was an ideal, Italian, Roman-Catholic role-model whose enshrined efforts would help to promote the image of Italian-Americans and Roman-Catholic Americans and their contributions to our society in culture. It was in 1934, by proclamation of then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt, that a day in early-October, then the 12th, will be enshrined on the federal calendar as a day of cultural commemoration. So, this still doesn't explain the controversy, and why advocacy groups have been introducing an alternative, instead.
Christopher Columbus, of Genoa, then an Italian maritime city-state, sailed under the Spanish crown, on his three ships, and made aware to European Society that additional continents existed beyond the ocean, open for exploration, exploitation, and colonization. This is common knowledge. What should also be common knowledge by now is that Christopher Columbus was not the first person to set foot in the New World, to 'discover' it quite as we've liked to proclaim. Norseman Leif Erikson had already set foot in the Americas centuries before, and of course, the Americas were home to human civilizations well before the arrival of the Europeans. To say Christopher Columbus 'discovered America' is something we no longer accept in its literal sense.
What appears to be less known, are the atrocities committed by Christopher Columbus and his crew upon the human populations already existing in the lands he revealed to Europeans, among them: genocide. It is cited that from 1493, when Columbus returned to the Americas to govern discovered islands in Spain's earliest colonial stage, to 1496, the native Taino population to the islands which were overseen by Columbus, diminished from eight million to three million (3). While diseases brought from Europe were certainly a factor, the enslavement, starvation, and general maltreatment of the natives by Columbus are equally to blame. Columbus oversaw a genocide as horrifying as any modern genocide of the past century, as by 1542, only 200 of such Taino population had remained. Over such years, the Taino population had been employed as slaves by the ruling Spanish in order to maximize the output of gold and other resources that were found abundant on such islands. Mistreatment and dehumanizing on behalf of Columbus and his counterparts contributed to their populations decline. The full extent of Columbus' atrocities and the damage he had inflicted on these people is worth a much longer exposé. Yet, we continue to identify Columbus solely with his accomplishment, seeming to erase the reality that he is directly responsible for overseeing of one history's worst genocides. Columbus Day rewards Christopher Columbus by both commemorating him for his accomplishment, and erasing the history of his atrocities from the slate of common knowledge, thus, it is inappropriate and historically irresponsible.
Indigenous Peoples' Day has been suggested has a healing alternative, to commemorate the cultures that pre-existed the arrival of Europeans, and continue to co-exist with them despite their various hardships and injustices throughout history, calling attention and raising awareness to such. It was in 1992, at the five-hundred year anniversary of Columbus' arrival, that Berkeley, California became United States city to adopt Indigenous Peoples' Day, after successful advocacy efforts by Native-American interest groups (4). Indigenous Peoples' Day does not discredit Christopher Columbus of his accomplishment, although it is worthwhile truly understanding that Christopher Columbus did not 'discover' America, seemingly as the first person, even from Europe, to encounter it, but rather he opened the door of opportunity for European settlement and development. Indigenous Peoples' Day merely restores the historical reality, that has been over-painted and re-written by Columbus Day, that while having an important place in the history of civilization, Christopher Columbus is simply no man to honor.
Penn State College