If you were to walk into a stranger’s backyard for the first time and proclaim that you’ve discovered it, it’s unlikely you’d be celebrated for it for over 500 years. In fact, you’d likely be arrested for trespassing. Consider this during this year’s celebration of Christopher Columbus Day.
However, this analogy doesn’t truly capture the severe reality of Columbus’s role in the exploitation and conquest of the indigenous people of the Americas.
To begin, a little elementary history:
Columbus landed in the Caribbean, not on the continent of North America. He arrived there by accident. In fact, he was trying to get to Asia. Columbus failed and never found a direct route to Asia from Europe. Columbus was not the first non-native to reach the Americas. Icelandic Viking Leif Erikson and his family arrived in modern-day Canada nearly 500 years before Columbus. However, the Vikings left when native inhabitants made it clear their exploits were not welcome.
We speak of the Native American population as if they are only a facet of our history. At best, our Western-centric framing of history describes them as a stepping stone that allowed for America to evolve into what it has become today. At worst they are described as a source of inconvenience, or a barrier to progress. The reality is this: American settlers would not have survived without immense help from indigenous populations, and Native Americans are not just history. They make up 14.7 percent of Alaska’s population, 10.4 percent of New Mexico’s, 9 percent of Oklahoma’s and 8.9 percent of South Dakota’s. They are people. They are alive. They are the first real Americans.
To accept that Columbus “discovered” the Americas is to accept that nothing existed before Western civilization knew of it.
You might say this is just an argument over semantics, that Columbus did not ask to be revered. How can you possibly place the blame of every terrible act committed against native populations on one man, on one holiday?
But Columbus began the trans-Atlantic slave trade two years after his arrival by sending enslaved Taínos to Spain. Columbus oversaw the selling of native girls, aged 9-10, into sexual slavery. He not only endorsed Native American slavery, but also African enslavement. The first license granted to send enslaved Africans to the Caribbean was done by the monarchs of Spain, Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand, in 1501, during Columbus’s “rule” in the Indies.
This context is not provided when we’re told in elementary school that Columbus “sailed the ocean blue in 1492.” These historical atrocities set a precedent for how America treats its native populations and people of color. The problem with viewing injustices against Native Americans as a fact of past history ignores the reality that Native Americans are continually undermined and displaced in the present day.
A current example is that of the Dakota Access Pipeline. This oil pipeline, a work in progress, will cross directly under the Missouri River at Lake Oahe, the main source of drinking water for the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation. The pipeline was originally supposed to go farther north through Bismarck, a town that is 92.4 percent white. Officials blocked that path because of fears that a leak might harm the state’s capital. Our country is continually sending a message that it does not value the lives of native people, in contrast to its empathy for white lives.
Columbus Day became a federal holiday of the U.S. in 1937. It is one of 10 official federal holidays. In 1992, Berkeley was the first city to officially rename Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day. Since then, numerous other cities have followed suit. Hawaii, Alaska, Oregon and South Dakota do not observe Columbus Day at all.
It is time to stop revering Columbus. It’s time to recognize him for what he was: a failed navigator and an imperialist. Columbus set in motion the Western enslavement, exploitation, and rape of indigenous populations. By celebrating this man, you are celebrating the consequences of his actions.
Abolishing Columbus Day and establishing a federal Indigenous Peoples’ Day will not fix these injustices, but it is, quite literally, the least we can do.