The second Monday in October has been designated an American federal holiday in Christopher Columbus’s honor since 1937. To most people in the United States, this commemoration of his 1492 landing in the Bahamas no longer has much meaning – many Americans outside of large Italian American communities are only dimly aware that it’s an official holiday. Many people don’t even get the day off work, instead trading Columbus Day for the day after Thanksgiving.
The holiday’s popularity has been waning for some time. In cities like Seattle and Minneapolis, it has been already been renamed Indigenous Peoples’ Day, a reminder that Columbus’s voyages set off a chain of events that wreaked havoc on native populations in the New World. It’s time to make that piecemeal commemoration official: stop celebrating Columbus and start celebrating the native cultures he began the process of displacing.
For generations, school children learned to recite, “In fourteen hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue”. They then learned the story of the brave explorer who navigated into uncharted territory with sailors who were frightened of falling off the edge of a flat earth. That tale, much of it created by Washington Irving (the man who gave us The Legend of Sleepy Hollow), is bunk. Mariners knew full well the earth was round, including Columbus and his crew. Columbus just thought the circumference of the earth was thousands of miles smaller, and thus that the islands of the Caribbean were the East Indies. Our holiday celebrates a man who was lost.
Lost or not, he immediately captured some of the natives he met, writing of the “seven [natives] which I have ordered to be taken and carried to Spain,” and further musing that “I could conquer the whole of them with 50 men, and govern them as I pleased”. In December, his ships reached Hispaniola – the island that now hosts Haiti and the Dominican Republic – where he forced the natives to provide him gold; those who didn’t had their hands lopped off. It was the beginning of a rapid decline of the island’s population; historian Laurence Bergreen estimates that there were 300,000 natives on Hispaniola when Columbus arrived; by 1550, there were just 500. Many had been killed by disease or Spanish soldiers; others had been enslaved and sent back to Spain. A huge number simply took their own lives rather than live under Spanish rule. Is this really worthy of a celebration and a three-day sale at the local department store?
One of the original purposes of Columbus Day was to celebrate America’s longevity. There had been local commemorations of the holiday throughout the 19th century, but the first big push for national recognition of Columbus came in 1892, the 400th anniversary of his first voyage. America – its Civil War behind it and a bright future ahead – wanted recognition that the country was four centuries old, even if Columbus himself had never set foot on soil of what would become the United States.
Today, we have no such identity crisis and don’t need this holiday to remind us of our origins. Not only do we have Thanksgiving, which marks the beginning of the first great wave of European immigration, we also have Independence Day, which recognizes the country’s political origins, as does, to a lesser extent, President’s Day. Columbus Day’s sentiments are superfluous.
Instead, let’s focus on the indigenous people displaced by Columbus and those who followed in his wake. From the Calusa in southern Florida to the Duwamish who settled modern-day Seattle nearly 10,000 years ago, the continental United States had a pre-Columbus population that numbered in the millions. By some estimates, nearly 90% of those people died between 1492 and the Pilgrims’ arrival in 1620, most of them felled by European diseases to which they had no immunity. Those who didn’t die saw their territories encroached upon by European settlers, and as the numbers of natives dwindled, so did their languages, cultural practices, religions and rich histories.
Rather than a holiday celebrating one man, let’s have a day where every local community celebrates the native cultures connected to that locale. In New York, we could honor the Algonquin-speaking Lenape; in Utah, there could be a festival for their namesake Utes; in the Dakotas, a celebration of the Sioux, while at the same time recognizing the plight of many Indians on reservations.
Positive steps are already being made in that direction. While Seattle will host an Indigenous Peoples’ Day for a second timethis year, nearby Bellingham is considering a move to “Coast Salish Day,” which would honor the specific natives of that area. Not only would this tie the holiday more meaningfully to the community, it would help erode the “Great Man” myth of historical progress and celebrate the immense diversity of the native peoples who still call America home.
Of course, not everyone would be pleased. These days, the strongest argument in favor of the holiday comes from Italian Americans, who helped originally promote Columbus Day as a way to mark their heritage and to celebrate a Catholic hero in a decidedly anti-Catholic country. But does anyone really want to ride a float commemorating a vicious slave trader who caused 50,000 natives to spontaneously commit suicide? I’d argue that they can come up with better symbols of Italian American pride.
As the late, great Italian American Lawrence Peter “Yogi” Berra, once said: “The future ain’t what it used to be.” He was right. Let’s start reimagining that future as one that doesn’t honor Christopher Columbus.