What Should We Do With Columbus Day?

Statue of Christopher Columbus, formerly at the corner of Elmwood Ave and Reservoir Ave in Providence, RI, removed by the city in 2020. This statue is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Today is Columbus Day according to the calendar. It is also Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Two years ago, Robert Reich tweeted, “Today is Indigenous Peoples Day. Please remove Columbus Day from your vocabulary. May this year be the last we even have to make that distinction.” Well, that obviously has not happened. On Friday, President Biden issued a proclamation declaring October 10, 2022, to be Columbus Day—but he also issued a proclamation declaring today to be Indigenous Peoples’ Day, making it only the second time that Indigenous Peoples’ Day has been designated as a national holiday, though it has been recognized as a holiday in South Dakota since 1989.

In the first proclamation he directed “that the flag of the United States be displayed on all public buildings on the appointed day in honor of our diverse history and all who have contributed to shaping this Nation” and in the second he called upon the people to “observe this day with appropriate ceremonies and activities. I also direct that the flag of the United States be displayed on all public buildings on the appointed day in honor of our diverse history and the Indigenous peoples who contribute to shaping this Nation.”

One could certainly argue that both of these celebrations have merit. Of course, it would be quite possible to celebrate them on different days. Tennessee and California, for example, have Native American Day in September. Planning Indigenous Peoples’ Day on the same day as—and it would actually be the preference of many for it to take the place of—Columbus Day, however, is not by mistake. It was at a 1977 UN conference on discrimination that an Indigenous Peoples’ Day was first discussed, and in 1990, at the International Conference on Discrimination Against Indigenous Populations in the Americas, again sponsored by the United Nations, replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day was suggested. Columbus Day has been a federal holiday since 1937.

In order to grasp the reasons for possibly replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day it is necessary to evaluate the reasons for Columbus Day. By every indication, there are two. The first reason is to celebrate Columbus’s accomplishments, specifically, his “discovery” of the New World vis-à-vis his arrival in what we today know as the Bahamas and Cuba in October of 1492. Columbus never set foot on mainland North America, though, so that creates a bit of argument against the commemoration. Why not celebrate Leif Eriksson Day? After all, he beat Columbus to the New World by some 500 years—and he actually landed on North America. Well, there actually is a Leif Eriksson Day; it is October 9, and was first so proclaimed by President Lyndon Johnson in 1964. Obviously, though, it doesn’t get much attention and I would guess you have never seen it on a calendar.

Again, it was Columbus’s “discovery” that led to European exploration of the western hemisphere, but it was probably Juan Ponce de León who was the first explorer after Columbus to set foot on the North American continent. He landed, in 1513, on the coast of what today is known as Florida; in fact, he named it La Florida. The oldest continuously occupied settlement of European origin in the continental United States is St. Augustine, Florida, founded in 1565 by Spanish admiral Pedro Menéndez de Avilés. The first attempted English settlement in North America was the Roanoke Island colony, founded by Sir Walter Raleigh in 1585. That colony famously disappeared. The first permanent English colony was founded at Jamestown in the early 17th century by the Virginia Company. So why isn’t there a Juan Ponce de León Day? Or a Pedro Menéndez de Avilés Day? A Sir Walter Raleigh Day? A Virginia Company Day? All valid questions. Seemingly they would each have claims at least as good as any that Columbus might make. Columbus, after all, “discovered” the New World by accident. He rightly believed the earth to be round, but he had no idea that North and South America existed and he mistakenly believed that he was in the Indies when we arrived.

The second reason for Columbus Day is to celebrate Italian heritage. Italian immigrants were facing some significant persecution in the U.S. in the early 20th century, so this holiday was seen as a possible way to counter some of that. But that ignores the fact that while Columbus was Italian by birth, having been born in Genoa, he was sailing for Spain when he “discovered” the New World. History.com asserts that when President Franklin D. Roosevelt proclaimed Columbus Day a national holiday, he did so “largely as a result of intense lobbying by the Knights of Columbus, an influential Catholic fraternal organization,” meaning that the celebration was as much for Columbus’s Catholic faith as for his nationality.

Scott Stevens, who serves as the director of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Program at Syracuse University, told USA Today that he sees Indigenous Peoples’ Day “as an opportunity to have more critical discussion about our American history.” I, for one, would find it difficult to argue against having such a discussion. A thorough and accurate understanding of history is important. However, Stevens also said, “To have had American colonialism looked at throughout history as not being a problem and celebrated as a good thing is deeply problematic to any of us who live in a (Native-American) community or reservation.” But that’s a more complicated issue. Looking back with twenty-first century eyes, it is easy to say that colonialism was a problem or was not a good thing. But in the 15th and 16th centuries it was both normal and accepted. It is neither realistic nor appropriate to hold our ancestors to the same standards that we hold today. After all, there would also be plenty of things that Native American peoples did at that time that we would not approve of today, either. And we must not allow ourselves to forget that there was plenty of warfare and conquest among the indigenous people groups already in the Western Hemisphere when Columbus arrived. While it does not excuse the way they were treated by Europeans, the Native American peoples who were already in the Americas were not always peace-loving peoples. An article entitled “Warfare on Pre-Columbian North America” on the website of the Canadian Department of National Defence says,

Despite the myth that Aboriginals lived in happy harmony before the arrival of Europeans, war was central to the way of life of many First Nation cultures. Indeed, war was a persistent reality in all regions though, as Tom Holm has argued, it waxed in intensity, frequency and decisiveness. The causes were complex and often interrelated, springing from both individual and collective motivations and needs.

What’s more, the same article explains that while many have tried to claim that Europeans introduced to Native Americans the practice of scalping, that is not actually the case—though Europeans were by no means above promoting it among the tribes with which they allied themselves.

Some aspects of indigenous warfare shocked the European settlers. For example, the custom of scalping the enemy, which consisted in removing his hair by cutting off his scalp, scandalized many European observers. While some scholars have suggested that the Europeans themselves during first contact introduced this practice, it now appears certain that scalping existed well before colonization.

The article also states that the torture of prisoners was not uncommon among indigenous peoples, nor was the practice of giving captured women and/or young boys to the families of those who had lost a family member in warfare. While “giving” sounds nicer, and this was certainly better than torture or death, this was really just a form of slavery.

So, while I do not say this very often, I agree with what President Biden said last year: “We also acknowledge the painful history of wrongs and atrocities that many European explorers inflicted on tribal nations and Indigenous communities.” We should acknowledge that and teach history realistically. We also, though, must not allow for an inaccurate portrayal that makes it seem like bad things were only perpetrated by the Europeans.

According to Almanac.com, Indigenous Peoples’ Day “honors the histories, cultures, and perspectives of Indigenous peoples and their ancestors who lived on the land now known as North America. They existed in these areas thousands of years before the first European explorers arrived.” I have no problem with that, and I think Indigenous Peoples and their “histories, cultures, and perspectives” should be acknowledged, studied and even celebrated just as should any other culture that is part of what makes America. To be frank, I think Indigenous Peoples’ Day has a stronger claim to celebration than does Columbus Day.

Why? Well, as I have already said, Columbus never even set foot on the continent of North America. But more importantly is the fact that Columbus used his own desire for fame and fortune, and his desire to “convert” the indigenous peoples to Catholicism, as an excuse for horrific treatment of them. David Barton’s WallBuilders organization claims, in a post entitled “Celebrate Columbus Day!” that “It is especially because of Columbus’ religious motivations and convictions that today he has become a villain for most modern educators and writers, who regularly attack and condemn him.” I disagree with that completely. It is because of his enslavement of the indigenous peoples that Columbus is regularly attacked and condemned—and his motive for that enslavement is of little consequence. But if it was, I would be the first in line to say that Columbus’s methods of “converting” the indigenous peoples to Catholicism was no better than the tactics currently utilized by the Taliban and other similar groups. “Convert or die” can never be celebrated.

On another page of its website, entitled “Discovering Columbus,” WallBuilders has created what it calls “the port of departure for people who want to explore past and find the truth about Columbus.” One of the “modern lies” the page identifies is that Columbus sought gold so that he could get rich. The truth, WallBuilders claims, is that Columbus sought gold both for evangelism and to lead a crusade to retake Jerusalem from the Muslims—that Columbus “put God over gold.” That’s quite a stretch. While it is true that Columbus pointed to a desire to convert those in the Far East to Catholicism as one of his motives, one could argue just as easily, if not more easily, that he did so through an effort to get Ferdinand and Isabella to pay for his voyage and/or to increase his own standing in the Catholic church than through any pure motivation related to the souls of those unconverted peoples. After all, Columbus had some serious demands for Ferdinand and Isabella, as well, demands designed to ensure both wealth and titles for himself and his descendants. In his 1494 letter to Ferdinand and Isabella, Columbus did suggest that a portion of all gold found on the “Island of Espanola” should “be set aside for building churches and adorning the same, and for the support of the priests or friars belonging to them.” How much? A whopping one percent. Depending on the agreement you look at, Columbus expected to receive anywhere from one-tenth to one-eighth of all of the gold for himself. In his book Columbus: The Four Voyages, Laurence Bergreen describes the tribute system that Columbus and his brothers established that required “every Indian over the age of fourteen” to pay “the equivalent of a hawk’s bell filled with gold” and had to do so “on pain of death.” Since the area was not rich in gold, what was there was soon depleted, and the result was that the tribute system “obliterated any chance that the Indians would assist or cooperate with the Spanish in any other endeavor besides the pointless tributes of gold.” Even when Guarionex, one of the chiefs of the indigenous people, “argues that the land used to provide a minimal amount of gold could grow enough wheat to feed all of Spain, not just once, but ten times…Columbus refused to consider the idea.”

On Kenneth Copeland’s “Believers Voice of Victory” program in 2020, David Barton delivered a lecture entitled “The Truth About Christopher Columbus.” You can find it on YouTube if you want to watch it but I can give you the short version: Barton does what he always does, which is handpick quotes, anecdotes and sources, talk really fast and present himself as the bastion of truth in order to make the audience believe that anyone who disagrees with him is a fool. He cites Washington Irving’s multivolume A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus as a definitive source for the truth about Columbus. The problem with that is simple—it is a work almost universally recognized as part truth and part fiction, or at best creative license. Many consider it to be more of a historical novel than any kind of accurate history. In 1956, William Hedges, who spent much of his career as an English professor and, and eventually as the chair of American studies, at Goucher College, wrote an article published in The America’s entitled “Irving’s Columbus: The Problem of Romantic Biography.” He kindly notes that Irving’s work is “not so much falsification as the reflection of a certain point of view,” ending his article with this statement: “One is thus at least consistent in calling Irving’s Columbus a history which finally manages to transform itself into fiction.” Thus, with respect to Mr. Barton, not a source upon which we should be depending for our understanding of Christopher Columbus.

So, what should we do with Columbus Day? I do not personally see any need to observe it. Columbus never set foot on what is today the United States and to use him as the symbol of the influence of Italians on American culture seems a stretch at best. I think there are many other individuals with Italian ancestry who would be better candidates. As a historical figure, he was certainly influential, but his “discovery” of the New World was an accident; how much credit should he get for that? It seems that the negative outweighs the positive when it comes to Columbus, even when setting presentism aside. Columbus should surely be studied in history classes, but I don’t think he needs a national holiday. I am not advocating that all of the many statues of Columbus need to be torn down or all of the cities named after him need new monikers; I just don’t think he needs a federal holiday. Bartolomé de las Casas would seem a better candidate, really. Indigenous Peoples’ Day has a stronger case for a holiday than Columbus, but I think Native American Heritage Month (which is in November) is sufficient in that regard. Maybe on the second Monday in October we should all just go to work and school.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

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