What To Tell People Who Don’t Think Celebrating Columbus Day Is A Big Deal, Because It Definitely Is
On Monday, Oct. 9, schools and offices across the United States will be closed for what is sometimes called Columbus Day. Increasingly, communities across the country have moved to replace the holiday with Indigenous Peoples Day to honor those who suffered the most as a result of Christopher Columbus' coming to America, but some people remain staunch advocates for the holiday, or at least indifferent to calls for its repeal. So what do you say to someone who doesn't think celebrating Columbus Day is a big deal? Ideally, just knowing about the history of this continent would be enough, but here are some others just in case.
First, a look at the history. Columbus Day is not a longstanding tradition. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, under pressure from the Catholic fraternal organization the Knights of Columbus, officially named October 12th Columbus Day in 1934. What had been largely a celebration of Italian-American became a federal holiday, and instead of learning about the atrocities he committed, students began to learn a cutesy rhyme about Columbus sailing the ocean blue.
But no matter what we learned in school, to ignore the atrocities Columbus committed is irresponsible. Mallory Sprague, a 25-year-old member of the Ojibwe Nation, tells Bustle she believes that to celebrate Columbus today is an act of willful ignorance.
"To celebrate Columbus Day now? When mistreatment of native people has not only been continuous, but has also actually been in the news for once?" she asks. "I get it when people claim ignorance and think [the victims and the perpetrators] are gone and the history books don't tell the whole story. But I know you saw Standing Rock. I know you see this neocolonialism."
When I describe her response as "incredulous," Sprague corrects me: "I’d say I’m less incredulous and more annoyed. Like, I totally believe it, it's just disappointing. I think being incredulous is sort of a luxury native people aren’t afforded."
The issue is perhaps best summed up by the environmentalist, activist, writer and one-time Vice Presidential candidate Winona LaDuke, who wrote in her 1992 essay, "We Are Still Here: The 500 Years Celebration":
"To "discover" implies that something is lost. Something was lost, and it was Columbus. Unfortunately, he did not discover himself in the process of his lostness. He went on to destroy peoples, land, and ecosystems in his search for material wealth and riches. Columbus was a perpetrator of genocide, responsible for setting in motion the most horrendous holocaust to have occurred in the history of the world. Columbus was a slave trader, a thief, a pirate, and most certainly not a hero. To celebrate Columbus is to congratulate the process and history of the invasion."
So if someone asks why it's a big deal to celebrate Columbus Day, you can go ahead and send them that. Here are some other things to tell people who don't think celebrating Columbus Day is a big deal.
"His actions led to genocide"
Although some historians have been hesitant to accuse Columbus himself of genocide, the policies he implemented led to the near-total elimination of the native populations he encountered in the Caribbean. As historian Matthew Dennis told NPR, "Within 50 years of 1492, the Greater Antilles and Bahamas saw their population reduced from an estimated million people to about 500."
While Columbus may not have set out specifically to eliminate local populations, by implementing slavery, dangerous work conditions in local mines, executions for minor crimes, and introducing European diseases to a population that didn't have the antibodies to fight them off, Columbus contributed to the near-total eradication of the people he encountered.
"He set the stage for the transatlantic slave trade."
Almost as soon as he arrived in the Caribbean, Columbus began kidnapping and selling local people into slavery. According to one estimate by the Washington Post, by 1500, just eight years after he first landed in North America, Columbus and his brothers had sent nearly 1,500 enslaved islanders back to Europe to be sold.
In addition to the enslaved individuals he sent back to Europe, he also kidnapped and sold young girls to be used as sex slaves for his men. He wrote in his log: “A hundred castellanoes [sic] are as easily obtained for a woman as for a farm, and it is very general and there are plenty of dealers who go about looking for girls; those from nine to ten are now in demand.”
"There so many other Italians to celebrate."
When Los Angeles voted to change Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples' Day, some called the measure "anti-Italian." Indeed, for a long time, Columbus Day was seen as a day to celebrate Italian-American culture. But there are so many other prominent Italians who are both more connected to the United States as it stands today, and far more worthy of praise and celebration. Robert DeNiro? Bruce Springsteen? Lady Gaga?! Come on, you guys. We can do better.
"Native people continue to be hurt by Columbus' legacy."
Talking about a man who lived in the fifteenth century can make the issues at hand seem like they exist in the distant past. But Native people in North America today face far greater obstacles than almost any other group in the U.S. The Federal government fails to provide even minimally sufficient funds for indigenous communities' healthcare and education, and it often ignores the rights granted them as Native people. As a result, they suffer from some of the highest rates of poverty and unemployment in the country. What's more, the Federal government regularly strips Native populations of their land and natural resources — just think of what happened at Standing Rock.
These problems are not in the past, they are happening right now, and they will continue long after Oct. 9, and to celebrate a man whose actions (over time, and with the support and complacency of generations of Americans) led to so many of these issues, is naive and insensitive.
But, as Winona LaDuke wrote: "After all the hoopla and celebration by the colonial governments are over, the Native voice will prevail. It is like a constant rumble of distant thunder, and it says through the wind, 'We are alive. We are still here.'" The tide is turning against Columbus Day in many cities and countries, and towards renaming the day in honor of indigenous people, or referring to it simply as "fall holiday." It's important to remember the horrible things Columbus brought to this country, but we definitely don't need to celebrate him for it.