This year, Austin has joined the growing number of cities replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day and protesters in Houston are asking our city council to do the same. So far, the Houston City Council has declined, but with more cities rejecting the celebration of Columbus Day every year, we are hopefully not far off.
Columbus Day became a federal holiday in the 1930s, largely due to the campaigning of Italian-American anti-discrimination groups, such as the Knights of Columbus, who wanted a Catholic Italian hero, though historians now believe that Columbus was actually born in Northern Spain. The movement against the holiday began in the 1970s, and Berkley, CA became the first city to change the name to Indigenous Peoples Day in 1992; over 50 cities have joined in the interim.
Supporters of the change point to Columbus’ many crimes against indigenous peoples — crimes so heinous even in the eyes of the era that he was brought back to Spain in chains before being pardoned by King Ferdinand. As Columbus himself noted in his own journals, he sold native children as young as nine years old into sex slavery. The rest of the indigenous population were enslaved in Columbus’ brutal gold mines. If they brought him the proper amount of gold he requested, they wore a metal pendant to indicate they were safe until the next deadline; if not, their hand was cut off and they were made to wear it on a cord around their neck (a la Game of Thrones’ Jamie Lannister). As a result, many died of blood loss and infection. Others committed mass suicide or died of exhaustion in the mines. When Columbus’ men ran out of meat to feed their dogs, Arawak infants were fed to them. An eyewitness to these atrocities, Bartolome de las Casas (wisely suggested by web comic artist the Oatmeal as a better man to honor in October) reported watching as Spanish soldiers “dismembered, beheaded or raped over 3000 people” in a single day. Only two years after Columbus landed in Hispaniola, half of the native population was dead.
Columbus did not even discover America, and it’s very difficult to identify who did. There are the ancestors of the indigenous populations that crossed the Bering Strait, not to mention possible indigenous populations before they arrived. Famed Viking Leif Ericson landed in Canada a few hundred years earlier. Columbus never set foot in the land that is now the United States; he explored the Bahamas, Hispaniola, and later some parts of Central and South America. It makes very little sense to have a federal holiday celebrating a mass murderer who never even landed on what is now U.S. soil.
Nonetheless, in an increasingly polarized political climate, not everyone wishes to see Columbus Day done away with. The lines of argument are similar to those put forth in recent months about the removal of Confederate Monuments; that failing to celebrate figures that committed atrocities is somehow erasing history, that if there are not statues glorifying them in parks across the country, they will disappear from textbooks. Never mind that every U.S. elementary school student knows who Adolf Hitler was without any statues honoring him. They know who Benedict Arnold was without celebrating a federal holiday in his name. Others argue that we’ll have no heroes left if we demand they all be “perfect” — mass murder apparently being an imperfection in character rather than a war crime. Still others argue that the success of Columbus’ campaign of mass murder and slavery against indigenous peoples is proof of the superiority of white Europeans, and that indigenous peoples should be grateful that their ancestors were his victims — lest they remain “uncivilized”.
Let us acknowledge our true history rather than the sanitized and racist version that our children are taught when they learn the classic poem about “sailing the ocean blue.” Rename Columbus Day at the federal level. Use Indigenous Peoples Day to teach children about indigenous history and culture, as well as the atrocities committed by European conquerors. Teach them that exploration and conquest are not the same. We should change this holiday not to forget Christopher Columbus and others like him, we should change it so that we never forget the crimes that he committed. Join me today in honoring the indigenous peoples of the Americas, teaching your children the truth about American history, and rejecting the sanitized narrative of American discovery.