*Trigger and content warning: this piece contains excerpts of a historical document with sexual and racial violence and mentions of suicide
If you received a standard American education in the mid-20th century, one of your earliest primary school lessons praised Christopher Columbus and described the so-called “discovery of America.” You learned that in 1492 the fearless Columbus and his noble crew bravely navigated the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria to reach the New World, where they broke bread with the Indians. You sang along in school pageants that told and retold this story as innocently as any nursery rhyme.
My generation was saturated with Columbus and Thanksgiving narratives that were “suitable” for children because they included nothing to dislike; in fact they lied to children because they erased the terrible side of Christopher Columbus’s legacy.
But so many millions absorbed the stories at an early age that they have a hard time letting go. They hear about a movement to change the second Monday in October from Christopher Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day, and they scratch their heads wondering “Who isn’t proud that Columbus discovered America? What did Columbus or his crew do that was wrong?” They can’t understand.
If you’re one of those people please pause and take a breath.
An excerpt from a letter written by Michele de Cuneo, Columbus’ shipmate during his second voyage, talks about how the “Lord Admiral” (AKA Columbus) kidnapped a woman for de Cuneo to rape.
Read it and then tell me: Do you still feel like celebrating Columbus Day?
It’s hard to read this ugly passage, especially given it immediately tells you the truth about Columbus and his leadership. You know this wasn’t his only victim. You know their were more crimes than rape committed against Indigenous populations — other horrific atrocities followed. And most importantly, you know that retelling a harmless version of Columbus’ voyage is unconscionable.
Yes, Columbus was a decent sailor who traveled to lands then unknown in Europe. But he does not deserve a day for being “discoverer of America.” Firstly, he actually set foot on various Caribbean islands, not North America. Second, wherever he landed, Indigenous people were already there. Revering him in this way is not only factually incorrect, but adds to the erasure of Indigenous people and their rights.
From his first encounter with Indigenous people, Columbus was warlike and brutal. He forced natives to pay him gold and enslaved thousands, including children. Historians now believe that Indigenous people were so disheartened by Columbus’ unmitigated cruelty that 50,000 committed mass suicide rather than live under his heel.
Columbus’s cruelty set a precedent for the Spanish conquerors who followed him. They — like him — did not regard Indigenous people as human beings with rights to their own bodies, culture, or land. They included men like Juan de Onate, the first colonial governor of what is now the state of New Mexico. Onate punished natives by having their hands and feet amputated.
Despite having a holiday in the United States, Columbus was not an enlightened leader whose belief or actions positively contributed to making the country. Driven by lust for gold and land, he exemplified the worst aspects of the future United States government: Its greed, its capacity for racism and racial violence, its willingness to sacrifice countless lives to profit.
The United States and Canada’s most recently publicized crimes against Native people are the horrifying accounts of intergenerational trauma at government-run “Indian boarding schools,” which operated here and Canada from the 1800s until the 1990s. Native children were forcibly removed from their ancestral homes, beaten and sometimes killed when they refused to conform to Western standards of beauty and dress. We are still today uncovering unmarked grave sites at the ruins of former Indian boarding schools
Native Americans have survived immense cruelty and preserved what they could of their spirits, their culture, and their progress. What they have told us is that honoring the man whose contribution was Native American genocide with a national holiday is another insult, mocking their suffering.
Approximately 16 states and a few hundred cities and municipalities have changed Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day. Alabama and Oklahoma simultaneously celebrate both holidays. The remaining states have yet to take action. President Trump railed against “radical activists” who criticized Christopher Columbus. Last year, President Biden was the first president to celebrate Indigenous People’s Day, but the White House said there was no discussion of ending Columbus Day.
Columbus’s voyage to the New World is a fact in world history. Changing the holiday t0 Indigenous Peoples Day invites citizens to learn more historical facts, weigh more historical issues, honor the diverse cultures of Indigenous populations, and have an accurate picture of the role Christopher Columbus played in crimes against humanity. Indigenous Peoples Day is a necessary gesture of respect, acknowledgement, honor and mourning that should be adopted federally and in every state.