By Contributor Molly May
In 1937, Columbus Day was named a federal holiday to be celebrated on the second Monday of every October as a way to honor the day in 1492 when Christopher Columbus first set foot in the Americas. Columbus, an Italian-born explorer, set sail under the Spanish crown on a quest to find a western sea route to Asia which would provide easier access to the exotic fabrics and spices that the Europeans yearned for. Due to the limited geographic knowledge of the 15th century, explorers at the time were unaware of the Pacific Ocean and simply thought they could reach Asia from the Atlantic. When he landed in the West Indies, Columbus assumed that he had reached India and promptly labeled the natives as “Indians”.
Columbus’s arrival had monumental effects on the course of history. As only Native Americans and, briefly, Scandinavian Vikings had ever resided on this land, Columbus’s exploration marked the beginning of significant European contact with the New World. This prompted the Columbian Exchange–the integration of new crops, ideas, and cultures into European and American life. Arguably the most significant exchange, however, was the interaction between the Europeans and the native tribes. Upon Columbus’s arrival in the Americas, hundreds of native tribes were living across the continent, each with a unique language, culture, and established territory. While Europeans enjoyed the benefits of Columbus’s journey, these tribes certainly did not. The explorers brought with them illnesses that the native people had never been exposed to; they had no immunity to things such as smallpox and measles. 90% of the native population died of disease during just the first hundred years of European contact.
Columbus saw the natives who remained as obstacles on his path to glory. His motivations, similar to those of most other European explorers, were simple: find gold and riches, spread Christianity, and make a name for themselves and their nation. Additionally, their European perspective caused them to see themselves—white Christians—as a superior culture, perceiving of anyone else as inferior beings deserving of brutal treatment and enslavement.
There is no denying the genocide that Europeans inflicted upon the Native Americans. The Europeans often hung or burned natives that they took captive, killing 250,000 Haitians in just the first two years. Others were enslaved and forced to mine for gold that the Europeans took back to their home countries; thousands of men, women, and children were kept in pens and had their hands chopped off if they did not produce a sufficient amount of gold.
Despite these atrocities, American history has painted Christopher Columbus as a brave explorer who set out on the search for Asia. Millions of elementary school students each year are taught that “in 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” They are taught that Columbus discovered America. They sing songs about the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa María and happily stay home from school one extra day in October. They are not taught about the complete extinction of the Arawak tribe 150 years after Columbus’s arrival. They are not taught about the mass rapes of native women by Europeans nor the fact that settlers sold 9-year-old girls into sex slavery. They are not taught that Columbus never even set foot in America, only on the Caribbean Islands where he landed.
Instead, many children are under the misconception that this man single-handedly discovered the continent. American history, written by those with a political voice, intentionally ignores the narratives of those subversive groups that tarnish their image of greatness. It undermines the contributions of the thousands of native peoples who resided on the American continent before white men ever arrived. Whether or not we like it, by erasing the stories of native genocide from our textbooks, we are contributing to movements of oppression and white supremacy.
What if we changed the narrative?
In September of 2017, a statue of Christopher Columbus in Central Park was defaced with red paint on his hands, representative of the native blood that was shed. The graffiti underneath read “#somethingscoming”. And something has been coming- a national movement to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day, an opportunity to honor the native heritages of the tribes that were oppressed by Europeans. New Mexico, South Dakota, Oregon, Alaska, Maine, and Vermont have already adopted this initiative. More and more communities have begun to recognize the contributions and hardships of the indigenous people of America, which have been largely ignored and oppressed for the last several hundred years.
This movement has sparked a massive controversy: how could we end this American holiday and tradition that honors a respected explorer and, more recently, has become a day to celebrate Italian heritage?
It’s true. Many Italian-Americans have a different relationship with the brave explorer who risked everything to discover the undiscovered. He paved the way for immigrants, especially Italian immigrants, to find a new home full of opportunity and prosperity. In a recent NPR interview, one Italian-American explained, “There’s an emotional bond to Columbus…when I look at the figure of Columbus on a statue, I don’t see Columbus. I see my grandfather.” There are Italian Heritage Parades all across the nation as part of a celebration for everything that Italians, starting with Columbus, have sacrificed to help form our country today.
There is no black and white solution to this argument, but rather proposed compromises. For example, America is not the only country with a national holiday this time of year; Latin American communities celebrate Día de la Raza, or Day of the Race, which shifts the focus off of Columbus himself and onto the cultural influences that he brought that helped form many Latin American identities today. Over 100 cities around America have begun to host Indigenous Peoples Day celebrations as well as Columbus Day.
Either way, it is imperative that the narrative we preach is not one-sided or carefully selective. While it is valuable to honor what Columbus and Italian-Americans have contributed to American culture today, it is unacceptable to erase the voices of the native peoples who existed before, during, and after European exploration. We must paint a more complete image of history for our youth, not highlight the appealing and ignore the ugly. Rethinking Columbus Day is not a threat to American culture, but an opportunity to expand our narrative to include what America stands for.