Imagine having your house held up at gunpoint, being told to live in one room of your home, and once everything has calmed down and other families have moved in to your space, imagine everyone expects for you to celebrate the people who threatened and displaced you. I mean, I’d imagine that’s something similar to how Native Americans felt when Columbus Day was created.
This is the opening line for the last speech I presented in my Communications course, and with Indigenous rights at the forefront of what the American eyes have seen lately, I feel it’s appropriate to bring up this concept.
I’m not here to deconstruct tradition, nor am I here to disrespect a historical event. Tradition can still be upheld in an educated environment. We just need to respect and understand that the America Columbus stumbled upon was not his to claim and therefore should not be celebrated as a “discovery.” Give him another day. Give him a Columbus Day that represents his introduction of Europeans onto American land; it is the Indigenous people who should be credited for the discovery of this continent.
What this article will attempt to portray is the concept of renaming Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day in order to correctly accredit the original habitants of America.
By changing Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day, we will recognize the losses and pain Native Americans suffered at the hands of European invaders, rather than celebrate their conquerors and killers. In order to understand the difference between the oppressive ideas that Columbus Day upholds as a celebration of discovery and the same concept being celebrated under another title, we must educate ourselves on what each of these connotations represent.
The issue with Christopher Columbus begins with his unwitting ignorance in regards to global geography; the explorer was a Catholic, Italian citizen who thought he had landed in India when he first set foot on American soil. While his misunderstanding of the land was due to the lack of knowledge the his culture had regarding the geographic layout of the world, he did not lack skills in and the technology of British colonization and warfare, which made both him and his crew more dominant when faced with Native Americans.
While Columbus Day has been celebrated for centuries, it was not an official holiday until 1892. Our President at the time, Benjamin Harrison, signed a document that finalized the celebratory day, which, according to Stanford University’s version of the document on their website, would “honor the discoverer.” Religiously, Columbus and the native turmoil he incited are forgiven in the announcement, by a statement claiming Divine Influence: “[L]et there be expressions of gratitude to Divine Providence for the devout faith of the discoverer, and for the Divine care and guidance which has directed our history and so abundantly blessed our people.” This religious aspect ‘forgives’ any destruction that had been wreaked on Columbus’ part by attributing his success in conquest to a higher power, as if that would be the last word in nullifying any perception of wrongdoing from outside parties.
Ironically, today, some of the steps that were taken by Columbus’ followers would be seen as religious extremism – possibly even terrorism. In an essay by Sam Hitchmough, “It’s Not Your Country Any More,” Contested National Narratives and the Columbus Day Parade Protests in Denver
–which, if you are unaware, is one of the proudest cities when it comes to Columbus Day due to the large Italian population residing there-
the author recounts that “Columbus’s successors burned indigenous groups in the Caribbean in groups of thirteen to honor Jesus and his twelve disciples.” In a more modern context, the treatment of anyone under these conditions would be considered hellish and inhumane – definitely not a cause for celebration under any circumstance.
This being said, what has stopped us from celebrating the individuals who had resided in the Americas for centuries before the European conquerers arrived? Well, in academia, when an individual takes credit for something another has accomplished, we call it plagiarism. In America, we slap white privilege on it and call it a holiday. For my white brothers and sisters who are blanking out at the moment because you saw something you don’t agree with: I’ll agree with you. Oppression on our part isn’t (for the most part, at least) out of blatant racism anymore. It isn’t a conscious decision. It’s a comfort that white individuals who haven’t become mindful of their privilege aren’t aware that they enjoy. It’s systemic, and that can only be remedied with education and awareness.
From the perspective of Bill Means, an indigenous rights activist, “We [the native population] discovered Columbus, lost on our shores, sick, destitute, and wrapped in rags. We nourished him to health, and the rest is history.” The native people discovered Columbus. He wasn’t looking for America, he was looking for India and got lost. Whatever’s lost must somehow be found, and the someone that found the explorer were the Native American people.
If there’s any question to how native the Native American population is (not that it should matter, seeing as there is no question that they were heavily inhabiting the land when Columbus stepped onto it), National Geographic estimates that the first Northeast Asian population that migrated over the land bridge between Russia and North America did so approximately twelve thousand years ago – in ten thousand B.C.(E). Columbus ‘discovered’ ‘India’/’America…’ What…? Four-hundred-something years ago? Mathematically, this renders the colonizers’ historical experience of this land some three-point-three percent of what the Indigenous population has under their belts.
Renaming the day we celebrate the ‘discovery’ of the Americas doesn’t seem so harsh, now, does it? Especially if we still recognize Columbus; but for a different, more appropriate means. So, the question lingers – how to we get the label changed?
Well, let me tell you how.
The first (and easiest) way is to do what I’m doing right now. Spread the word via social media, via face-to-face contact, through open communication with people close to you. It’s simple, effective, and can grow the movement.
The second way is to contact local, state, and federal officials via e-mail or snail mail. They’re elected for a reason, and the reason is to listen to The People (it says so in our Constitution. It’s a good, quick read. Ten out of ten would highly recommend). USA.gov is a fantastic resource for contacting these officials, and many counties nationwide have already made the switch due to activism on the part of citizens.
The third way is to directly contact your officials in office. Make an appointment, visit them during their hours, and put a word in to get your point(s) across. It’s a mix of both the first and second steps, and is the most effective, though also the most stressful and confusing at first – so much so that I’m still trying to get the guts to do so.
The fourth way is on your own. Get creative. Get peaceful. Get artistic. Educate others and respectfully interact with people who share different opinions than you due to unwitting ignorance. We say we aren’t a fascist country, but if we continue to douse the ‘discovery’ of America in white history, we’re can’t claim to be a democracy. We have to teach and celebrate the truth and support the real discoverers of our nation.
I would love to hear how you’re planning on helping the cause, so leave a comment or let me know personally what you’re going to do and how you feel about the issue!
Chappell, Bill. “Indigenous Peoples’ Day Gains Momentum As A Replacement For Columbus Day.” NPR. npr.org. Oct. 7, 2016. Nov. 11, 2016.
“Creating Columbus Day.” Stanford University. beyondthebubble.stanford.edu. Nov. 11.
Hitchmough, Sam. “It’s not your country any more”. Contested national narratives and the Columbus Day Parade protests in Denver. Canterbury Christ Church University, 2013.
“How to Contact Your Elected Officials.” Official Guide to Government Information and Services. usa.gov. Nov. 11, 2016.
Lovgren, Stefan. “Who Were the First Americans?” National Geographic News. news.nationalgeographic.com. Sept. 3, 2003. Nov. 11, 2016.