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Happy Indigenous Peoples' Day!


The kids are off school, the banks are closed, but most of us with jobs still have to work today. In that sense, the second Monday in October doesn’t always feel like a “real” holiday, so perhaps we don’t give it the amount of thought it deserves.

Though it didn’t become a federal holiday until 1937, Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the so-called New World has been celebrated since not long after the first European colonies were established in the Americas. For generations, Columbus has been venerated as the “discoverer” of the New World, despite the fact that millions of people already lived here.

In the United States in particular, Columbus’ life is excessively mythologized. He is credited with discovering the Americas, though the Vikings got here first and  he never set foot on North American soil. He is said to have proved the Earth is round, which was already well-known in 1492. And while he is celebrated for “discovering” the Americas, he died believing he’d actually landed in Asia.

Columbus’ name is woven into our culture. Our national capital is the District of Columbia. An Ivy League university bears his name. There are 54 cities, counties, districts, and other communities in the US named for him. It is commonplace for streets and other landmarks to include his name. In an example I am personally familiar with, Delaware Avenue in Philadelphia was renamed to Columbus Boulevard. I wonder if the people behind the name change truly understood what it signified: yet one more erasure of indigenous culture in the name of exalting a European imperialist. It seems Columbus is still conquering, centuries after his death!

Kidding aside, it’s safe to say Columbus’ influence on our culture isn’t going anywhere. But there is also a trend moving in the opposite direction: Indigenous Peoples’ Day. This year, at least nine cities are celebrating Indigenous Peoples’ Day in place of Columbus Day. Though still small, that is the widest celebration yet. First celebrated in Berkeley, California in 1992, the movement is poised to grow, the culmination of decades of advocacy by Native American groups who ultimately seek an end to Columbus Day celebrations.

More broadly, it raises the question of where such historical figures fit in our understanding of the world and our own history and culture. Columbus was only a minor player in terms of his overall power and influence–he may have had no inkling of what his trading voyages would ultimately unleash. After all, he didn’t even believe he’d found a part of the world virtually unknown to Europe. He did comment on the disposition of the natives he encountered, however:

At every point where I landed, and succeeded in talking to them, I gave them some of everything I had — cloth and many other things — without receiving anything in return, but they are a hopelessly timid people. It is true that since they have gained more confidence and are losing this fear, they are so unsuspicious and so generous with what they possess, that no one who had not seen it would believe it. They never refuse anything that is asked for. They even offer it themselves, and show so much love that they would give their very hearts. Whether it be anything of great or small value, with any trifle of whatever kind, they are satisfied. I forbade worthless things being given to them, such as bits of broken bowls, pieces of glass, and old straps, although they were as much pleased to get them as if they were the finest jewels in the world. One sailor was found to have got for a leathern strap, gold of the weight of two and a half castellanos, and others for even more worthless things much more; while for a new blancas they would give all they had, were it two or three castellanos of pure gold or an arroba or two of spun cotton. Even bits of the broken hoops of wine casks they accepted, and gave in return what they had, like fools, and it seemed wrong to me. I forbade it, and gave a thousand good and pretty things that I had to win their love, and to induce them to become Christians, and to love and serve their Highnesses and the whole Castilian nation, and help to get for us things they have in abundance, which are necessary to us.

Usually, bits and pieces of this passage are quoted out of context to paint Columbus in the worst light possible, but I find it interesting that there are multiple points being communicated here:

  1. Initially, the natives were not particularly trusting, but they quickly overcame this suspicion.
  2. They were neither jealous nor possessive, and happily gave over anything that was asked of them.
  3. Some of Columbus' men took advantage of this generosity and gave useless junk to the natives in exchange for items of value, and Columbus claims to have been appalled by this behavior and to have put a stop to it.
  4. This can easily be read as a bit of PR meant to impress his Spanish investors and tell them what they wanted to hear.
  5. Finally, it was his mission to Christianize them and, by extension, indoctrinate them into the values of his culture.

Ethically, it’s quite a mixed bag, and since Columbus is speaking for himself, it is probably wise to take his self-praise with a grain of salt. It is obvious that he was interested in one of the core tenets of imperialism and colonialism: the erasure of an existing “inferior” culture, and its replacement with the “superior” European (in this case, Spanish) one. This was certainly not a novel idea to Columbus nor any of his European peers at the time: newly discovered peoples were to be converted to Christianity with haste, as their very souls were at stake!

His first voyage, in fact, was a disaster: he lost one of his three ships, and brought back little of the gold or other valuables he’d promised the King and Queen of Spain. His second voyage was even worse, so much so that, in the absence of gold, he returned with hundreds of slaves–or rather, those that survived the voyage, since hundreds died en route. Columbus’ gift of slaves appalled Queen Isabella so thoroughly that she decreed they be freed immediately, returned to the New World, and that there should be no further enslavement of the native peoples. For myriad other reasons, the enslavement of peoples indigenous to the Americas never panned out, but that was hardly the end of slavery in the Americas. Columbus himself spent much of his remaining career funneling slaves from the Caribbean back to Spain. In particular, he began the virtual extinction of the Taino people of Hispaniola–most of them unintentionally, by way of disease, and the rest via harsh enslavement. When he was elevated to Viceroy and Governor of the Indies, he ordered brutal crackdowns against natives that revolted and fought back against the colonization of their lands and enslavement of their people. His actions were unpopular even among the colonists he was sent to manage, so much so that he was eventually recalled to Spain and briefly imprisoned. Though he regained his freedom and undertook a fourth a final voyage, he never again had the same stature.

This is not to say that he died a destitute man, as is popularly believed. His remaining years were comfortable–not wealthy, but he had a decent standard of living and wanted for little, in material terms. His heirs later sued the Spanish Crown and extracted significant wealth for themselves, as well, so it would be hard to argue that Columbus left a worthless legacy to his family.

So, which Columbus is it we are celebrating on Columbus Day? The intrepid, brilliant mariner who inadvertently came across lands unknown to Europe, or the cruel administrator who brutalized and enslaved native peoples? Is it possible to even separate the two?

My answer is: it’s not. While history can never deny that Columbus played an important role in shaping the world as it is today, there are major negatives to that legacy, to a degree that can’t truly be reconciled. By that token, it doesn’t seem appropriate to celebrate a national holiday honoring a man who carried out such deeds, as common to his time as they may have been, nor if they are placed in the broader context of the history that followed.

My criticism is then less of Columbus himself, and more of how and why he is celebrated. In his own time, his popularity vacillated wildly as he fell in and out of favor with those in power. His historical importance wasn’t truly cemented until European imperialism began in earnest, and much of the mythmaking surrounding his life and achievements began. Those ideas persist with us today, both enlarging his role in discovering and colonizing the Americas, and diminishing his flaws and crimes. Columbus’ life and accomplishments belong to the Medieval era, but the legend of Christopher Columbus–and his place in our national mythology–originate later, and greatly inform our perceptions of him today, and the reasons we celebrate him every year.

Instead of continuing this tradition of honoring a man who has been shaped into a symbol of European imperialism, why not remember the millions of people killed and displaced in the aftermath of his voyages? This is not to hold Columbus personally accountable for the deaths and destruction that followed in the ensuing centuries, but to provide better balance and perspective in our examination of history and how we understand ourselves. Why we celebrate is at least as important as who or what, and to transition from celebrating Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day sends a strong signal about reconciling with the reality of our past.

As a final note, it must be said that replacing or eliminating Columbus Day is only a tiny token gesture in our overall responsibility for rectifying both the historical and ongoing crimes against indigenous peoples in the Americas and around the world. Changing a holiday matters, but it is not the end of the work, nor does it, by itself, make anywhere near sufficient amends.