Christopher Columbus has long been lauded as a national hero for discovering America. In schools across the United States, schoolchildren learn about his voyage to America and his subsequent unearthing of riches. In fact, the whole nation celebrates this discovery with Columbus Day, which lands on the second Monday of October. Recently, however, the Seattle School Board has decided to do away with this holiday and replace it with the more appropriate Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
Seattle is not the first city to reinvent the controversial Columbus Day. In Hawaii the holiday is known as Discoverers Day and in South Dakota it’s celebrated as Native Americans’ Day. The renaming of Columbus Day started in 1990, when Native American groups brought the idea of an alternative holiday to the Berkeley City Council. Two years later, the holiday was changed to Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
The controversy surrounding Columbus Day starts with the fact that Columbus was not the first person to discover America. In fact he never stepped foot in what is now the United States, although on his third expedition to the New World he did locate South America. So why do we still celebrate Columbus Day if his legacy includes the colonization of the Bahamas and the enslavement of the indigenous populations?
Due to the efforts of Columbus’s children to clear his name of any wrongdoings, he came to be viewed as a hero years after his death. In 1937, Franklin D. Roosevelt announced Columbus Day as a national holiday after the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic organization, petitioned to have a day to celebrate Columbus.
Yes, Columbus did make progress in navigation and trade between Europe and the Americas, but he was also responsible for the inhumane treatment of the indigenous population, which included forcing tribes to work hard labor and cutting off hands for those that didn’t meet their quota. Not to mention the diseases that Columbus and his men brought with them, such as smallpox, that quickly reduced populations.
Columbus Day isn’t all that’s it advertised to be. It is a holiday that is still offensive for Native Americans and others who see Columbus not as a peaceful explorer, but as a conqueror who committed genocide. Many, however, still find it offensive that supporters of Indigenous Peoples’ Day would want to rebrand Columbus Day into a more appropriate holiday. Among those that want to keep Columbus Day are some Italian-Americans, who view the national holiday as a celebration of their Italian heritage.
Regardless of the name, dedicating a day to a man who committed atrocities and left a painful mark on a population that still faces poverty and discrimination is in bad taste. It only highlights the efforts that the nation still has to make to eradicate racial discrimination and to bring to light the true legacy of Christopher Columbus.