Columbus Day falls on the second Monday of October. It celebrates Christopher Columbus and the narrative of the explorer discovering America. To some, this day is a symbol of accomplishment, a piece of history to be celebrated. Though, a differing point of view has gained both legal and social traction in years past.
“Since 1991, dozens of cities, several universities, and a few states have adopted Indigenous Peoples Day, a holiday that celebrates the history and contributions of Native Americans,” said a 2017 article on History.com
The “Repeal Columbus Day As State Legal Holiday” bill, supported by a Colorado House Representative Joseph Salazar, was proposed for the 2017 regular session in order to repeal Columbus Day as a state holiday and replace it with a floating holiday. The floating holiday would still grant state employees a day off where they can choose to celebrate the holiday on their own or not. According to the bill, the cities of Durango, Boulder and Denver have already made this change, as well as 26 other U.S. cities and the states of Alaska, South Dakota and Vermont.
The history of Christopher Columbus and Columbus Day are complex, wrapped up in myths. The common myth surrounding Christopher Columbus is that he discovered America. Salazar’s bill dispels this myth to support its plea for repeal.
According to the bill, Columbus, on May 12, 1492, arrived what is now called Hispaniola in the Caribbean, rather than the Indies, where he came upon the Taino people. Under the Spanish crown, Columbus is evidenced to have intended on sailing to the Indies to convert the indigenous people to Christianity, while supported by sufficient armament for this forced conversion. With this change of plans, Columbus adapted to conquering the Taino people in order to gain gold and other valuable items.
“Columbus engaged in inhumane acts of slavery, sexual exploitation, murder, and torture, which resulted in the annihilation of the Taino people,” the bill said.
According to the bill, the exploitation of these people “triggered one of history’s greatest slave trades, the pillaging of Earth’s natural resources, and a level of inhumanity toward indigenous peoples that still exists.”
The bill further elaborates on how these consequences carry on even today. Accounting for the true history of Christopher Columbus and “his well-documented crimes against humanity,” the bill defended this change of holiday.
The New York Times helped to shed some light on why Columbus Day came about and why the idolization of Columbus diverged from the true story of the explorer. One specific example is a 2017 article by Jacey Fortin.
“Americans commemorated Columbus’s first landing in the Caribbean at least as early as 1792, when members of the Tammany Society of New York and, separately, the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston, gathered to mark the 300th anniversary of the day the Spanish ships made landfall,” the article said.
According to the New York Times, for the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ arrival in 1892, President Benjamin Harrison proposed the idea of “Discovery Day.” Later, President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared Columbus Day an official national holiday in 1934. Teh publication also says The importance of Columbus Day resonated with Italian Americans and Catholics in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
A 2005 article written on the topic was sent to the Los Angeles Times by Sam Wineburg, a professor at Stanford University’s School of Education. According to Wineburg, 18 million immigrants came to America in 1880 through 1910 and by 1910, the number of Italian immigrants went from 300,000 to two million total, making up more than 10 percent of the immigrant population. Because of this surge, Catholicism grew and discrimination followed.
“And what better symbol to mobilize and Americanize these immigrants than one of their own? Columbus — discoverer of the New World but born in the Italian port city of Genoa — was a logical choice,” Wineburg said.
According to the New York Times, the meaning of Columbus Day changed when Benito Mussolini gained power during World War II. An earlier article of The New York Times said that in 1938, those at gathering in Central Park for Columbus Day shouted, “Viva Mussolini.” Later in 1943, Columbus Day fell out of favor with the public because of the connection with Mussolini.
Despite the debunked history of Christopher Columbus, the defense of the holiday still carries on.
The Los Angeles Times covered the outcry by Italians in response to Los Angeles’ change from “Columbus Day” to “Indigenous Peoples Day.”
According to the Los Angeles Times, Basil Russo, president of the Order Italian Sons and Daughters of America, said, “We had a very difficult time in this country for well over a hundred years…Columbus Day is a day that we’ve chosen to celebrate who we are. And we’re entitled to do that just as they are entitled to celebrate who they are.”
The Washington Post reported, just before Columbus Day this year, how a journal pulled an essay called “The Case for Colonialism” written by a political science professor at Portland State University.
“Bruce Gilley’s essay argued that countries that were colonized by Western powers ‘did better’ than those that were not,” The Washington Post said. “He also said that colonialism was generally ‘beneficial’ and ‘subjectively legitimate.’ The essay’s abstract said: ‘For the last 100 years, Western colonialism has had a bad name. It is high time to question this orthodoxy.’”
The publishing caused 15 out of 34 members of the journal’s board to resign. It was eventually pulled because of outcry and threats posed to the author. According to The Washington Post, the journal removed the essay with a notice that explained it was taken down “at the request of the academic journal editor, and in agreement with the author of the essay, Bruce Gilley.”
The defenses of Columbus Day have been met with similarly strong counter responses. The article “The Columbus Day holiday is under attack, and so are statues honoring the famed explorer” by Washington Post reporter Steve Hendrix pertains to the recent series of vandalism upon Columbus statues.
“At least three Columbus statues in New York have been vandalized in recent weeks, including one in Central Park that had its hands painted red and graffiti scrawled across its pedestal,” Hendrix wrote. “In Baltimore, the purported first-ever monument to the explorer, erected in 1792, was attacked with a sledgehammer in August.”
According to the article, the New York Police began guarding the 76-foot-tall statue of Columbus in Columbus Circle in response to the vandalism and city officials, who said the sculpture would be part of a 90-day review of “all symbols of hate on city property.”
The protection of the statues hearken back to the controversy of the summer: the removal of Confederate statues. In an NPR interview with Kevin Gover, the director of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian, the comparison was made.
“Well, what’s important is that we understand our history,” Gover, said. “We can’t understand who we are unless we know where we came from. And the problem with the monuments and Columbus statues and other things is that it’s an effort, in essence, to whitewash history. Confederate monuments really suggest that the uprising against the United States was a noble thing in some way, when, in fact, it was a war made in defense of slavery. It was a rebellion. Similarly, the honoring of Columbus is to whitewash his record.”
Two employees of UNC’s Native American Student Services spoke about their personal views on Columbus Day and what should be done about it.
The event coordinator, Kaila Ward, a second-year English education student, agreed that the Columbus narrative needs to be revised. Ward also identifies with the Cherokee Nation.
“Indigenous Peoples Day should definitely replace Columbus Day just considering the painful past that Native Americans have had due to the genocide incited by Christopher Columbus when he discovered America, which he didn’t,” Ward said. “Indigenous Peoples Day should be adopted nationally as a reflection of the government’s commitment to Native American’s rights and their acknowledgement of the atrocities Native Americans have faced.”
As Thanksgiving approaches, it is productive to think about how the narrative that Columbus Day puts forth about Native Americans and how it precedes this event about community. Ward explained how education is important to understanding Native American history.
“Thanksgiving in general in relation to Native American affairs is kind of a skewed to begin with,” Ward said. “Thanksgiving is not the traditional Squanto/Pilgrim you are taught in elementary school. It’s much more and it’s got a more grotesque nature in Native American affairs. So I think in general Indigenous Peoples Day is a day to educate the public about the truth of Native Americans and the history they have endured… then using it as a platform to teach people about the misconceptions about other Native Americans. The Squanto/Pilgrim story is a myth and there a lot of other myths associated with Native Americans that need to be dispelled with education.”
Autumn Tsosie is a freshman biology major and a student employee at Native American Student Services. Tsosie, who identifies as Navajo, agrees that Columbus Day supports a misrepresentation of history.
“I think they are two separate things,” Tsosie said. “Because you are celebrating to be thankful on thanksgiving. My family still celebrates Thanksgiving, although we are Native American.”
The “Repeal Columbus Day As State Legal Holiday” bill was introduced Mar. 7 2017 and was postponed indefinitely in May.