Why the curse of Columbus Day lingers onto Native American Heritage month

Columbus Day celebrated on the 12th of October, juxtaposed with Native American heritage month in November, which goes by in relative obscurity could be one of the greatest contradictions on the American National Calendar. While the latter is an important homage to the earliest residents of the continent, it is not possible to celebrate Columbus Day without disrespecting indigenous people. How can one glorify a cruel, tyrannical invader and its victims within the span of a single month?

The very context of Columbus Day is rooted in a whitewashed elementary school history lesson: 0n the 12th of October 1494, Christopher Columbus discovered the uninhabited Americas and brought with him on his three iconic ships (Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria) democracy, Christianity and civilization. And in doing so, proved that the earth was spherical.

There’s a lot to unpack and unlearn here: for starters, the Eurocentric historical lens and one of the greatest misnomers ever used, the word “discovery” so frequently associated with Columbus. Most of these claims have been debunked by history itself: Columbus never set foot in North America, and the idea of the earth being round was a prevalent theory at the time. And according to Oren Lyons, traditional chief of the Onondaga Nation, what Columbus brought on his ships were actually “Two edicts, the papal bull of 1452, which said to enslave all Saracens and pagans, and the papal bull of 1493, which said to bring in all pagan nations and peoples to the Christian faith and their property. And that’s been done.”

In fact, recent historical findings reveal that he was not even the first European to set foot in the Western hemisphere nor was he the first to establish a settlement there. Earlier Vikings had already achieved this feat. But myths die hard. Columbus’ voyage simply inaugurated transatlantic colonization and the subsequent American Indian genocide. A recent article by Penn Today highlights that “there were between 5 million and 15 million Indigenous people living in North America in 1492. By the late 1800s, there were fewer than 238,000 left.”

He viewed the native populations as obstacles, and eventually exploited them as forced labor to collect gold. He plundered and looted, enslaved, and raped women. He mutilated the body parts of those who objected to his coercion. And he recorded all this in his diaries, which he eventually presented to the Spanish royalty, that was funding his chartered mission. Here is one such existing excerpt, which declares his intentions of enslaving indigenous people:

“They willingly traded everything they owned … They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features …They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron …They would make fine servants … With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.”

So why does Columbus still merit a federal holiday in his name? Whether one considers him as an innocent product of his time, simply talking the language of colonialism, or as the vindictive tyrant of the Caribbean that committed countless atrocities against humanity, to memorialize him is to perpetuate his legacy of oppression.

And while we’re on the topic, let’s also remember how holidays such as Thanksgiving are equally culpable of the erasure of Native American history due to their capitalistic appropriations. Over time this holiday that stemmed from an indigenous ceremony celebrating the generosity of the Wampanoag tribe, has evolved into a feast of Turkeys. And the following day to be celebrated as Native American Heritage day has come to acquire the popular title of “Black Friday”: an excuse to shop. Thanksgiving as we know it naively commemorates the arrival of settlers without addressing the repercussions of the phenomenon: years of oppression and genocide.

[Image Description: Members of the Mexica Movement protest against Columbus Day in downtown Los Angeles, California, in 2015.] via Reuters
Today, about 13 states have renamed Columbus Day to some variant of “Indigenous people day.” In the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd, anti-racist protests made many statues and monuments of slave owners come crashing to the ground. Amidst these were statues of romanticized conquistadors including Columbus, removed by the American Indian Movement. Taking down monuments that represent genocide and slavery is not vandalism. It is a symbolic act of throwing wrongful “historical heroes” off their pedestals.

[Image Description: A statue of Christopher Columbus toppled from its stand in June on the east side of the Minnesota State Capitol.] via Darren Thompson, Native News Online
The next step? The carefully sanitized version of history must be replaced by an adequate representation of Native voices. After all, “history not taught is history forgot”.


Get The Tempest in your inbox. Read more exclusives like this in our weekly newsletter!