Columbus Day vs. Indigenous Peoples’ Day
The long history of conflict behind this day.
Written by Halle Elder
“In fourteen hundred ninety-two/Columbus sailed the ocean blue./ He had three ships and left from Spain;/ He sailed through sunshine, wind and rain. (Marzollo)”.
Many (if not all) of us born in the United States of America recognize at least the first two lines of this popular poem. Italian explorer Christopher Columbus is frequently falsely credited with the discovery of the Americas. He is often depicted as a brave explorer who opened the door to new land and new trade for the Spanish empire. This is the image of Columbus that the majority of the country still holds. However, controversy has arisen in recent years over Columbus and his claim to fame within the history of the Americas and of the U.S. What are the reasons for celebrating a man who never even set foot on the Americas’ mainland?
HISTORY BEHIND THE CELEBRATION
Before addressing the false representation of Columbus, it is important to recognize the history behind Columbus Day itself. Columbus Day is a federally recognized holiday in the United States that is celebrated on the second Monday of October. Ironically, the history behind this holiday actually holds its own traces of persecution and mistreatment.
Columbus Day began to be celebrated in the 19th century. Originally, it was a means of celebrating Italian heritage at a time when Italian immigrants were being persecuted and treated poorly. According to Erin Blakemore from National Geographic, during the celebration of the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s voyage, 11 Italian immigrants were lynched in New Orleans. This is just one example of the treatment that this immigrant population endured during the 19th and 20th centuries and even through today. This being said, the celebration and observation of Columbus Day, at least of its roots, is a means of a group of people celebrating their history. Many Italians use this holiday to celebrate their heritage, not Christopher Columbus himself.
Despite this history, Columbus Day is a federally recognized holiday which celebrates a man who committed horrendous acts toward the Indigenous and Native populations of the places he “discovered.” The term “Indian” was first placed on the Indigenous people he encountered and later used to describe all Native peoples of the Americas. This term came about because Columbus believed that he had landed in India, rather than the Caribbean. Not only did he mislabel the first people he encountered, but he treated them terribly. National Geographic also points out the reports of Columbus and his men raping, murdering and brutalizing native women and children. Spanish historians report that, while he was governor of the Indies, Columbus paraded dead Tainos (referred to by Columbus as “Indians”) around the towns, in an effort to stop the ongoing rebellion by the people whose home he had invaded.
Columbus was actually removed from his positions of authority in the Indies, after settlers within his community lobbied against him to the Spanish court because of his brutality. Consuelo Varela, a Spanish historian, described Columbus' style of governing as tyrannical. Because of his actions, he and his brothers were forced to return to Spain. Despite this, his actions impacted the treatment of Indigenous people under Spanish control and unlocked the pathways to the intercontinental trade route — which opened not only the trade of goods, but the trade of people that would last for centuries.
THE RISE OF INDIGENOUS PEOPLES’ DAY
With the brutal history that surrounds Columbus, it is no surprise that as Native Americans gained visibility and more people started listening to their voices, the public began to question the celebration of this man. Indigenous people of the Americas see Columbus Day as an insult which glorifies the invasion, brutality and murder that occurred throughout colonization. Because of this, they have worked to change the celebration into one recognizing their own history and people.
In the 1960s and 1970s, several Native American movements began to focus on Columbus’ history and the misrepresentation of him in our society. These movements grew throughout the decades until 1990, which marked the 100th anniversary of the Wounded Knee Massacre which included the killing of over 300 Lakota people by U.S. soldiers. Tim Giago, a Native American publisher, pushed for the governor of South Dakota to declare a year of reconciliation for Indigenous people. This was accepted and, in turn, Columbus Day was changed to a holiday referred to as Native American Day. South Dakota became the first state to replace Columbus Day in order to recognize the Native peoples in America.
This movement grew even more steadily from that moment on. Cities and states around the country began to recognize Indigenous Peoples’ Day or Native American Day in exchange for Columbus Day. OfficeHolidays.com lists Alaska, Iowa, Maine, Minnesota, New Mexico, Nevada, North Carolina, Oregon, South Dakota, Vermont and Wisconsin as states which recognized either Indigenous Peoples’ Day or Native American Day as a paid holiday. Several other states recognize it in some capacity as well. In 2021, for the first time, the President of the United States announced a national celebration of Indigenous Peoples’ Day. President Biden gave a proclamation on Oct. 8th, 2021:
“NOW, THEREFORE, I, JOSEPH R. BIDEN JR., President of the United States of America, do hereby proclaim October 11, 2021, as Indigenous Peoples’ Day.”
This recognition meant a lot to the Native people who have been fighting to be heard about the twisted history of the Americas. But on the other hand of this debate, Italian Americans are pushing back on the widespread cancellation of a holiday that connects to their heritage. Some states are dealing with these concerns by celebrating other people of Italian heritage instead of Columbus. Colorado now celebrates Cabrini Day in celebration of Mother Cabrini, an Italian-American nun known for her kindness who provided humanitarian assistance to many Italian immigrants. Honoring this woman, instead of Columbus, is a way for Italian Americans to celebrate their heritage without celebrating a brutal tyrant. California too is addressing these concerns and now celebrates both Indigenous Peoples’ Day and Italian Heritage Day.
In today’s society, growing emphasis is being placed on the celebration of Indigenous Peoples’ Day. As a nation, an understanding of the true history of this country is slowly making its way into mainstream knowledge and through this “cultural revolution”, Columbus Day is losing its appeal for many. However, there are still many who argue that Columbus should be celebrated. It is important that the true history of Columbus is taught and addressed. This correction would end the false narrative of the heroic explorer who “discovered” America and in turn, show the true history of the tyrannical man who paved the way for the colonization of the peoples of the Americas. This debate is an ongoing issue that has no one true solution, but through empathy and understanding, we as a society might find a compromise to the concerns on both sides.