Columbus Day and 2015


Yesterday was Columbus Day, or as the critics said, Indigenous People’s Day. The new internet debate surrounding this date basically boils down to colonialism, and a desire to re-litigate the past. Christopher Columbus is an incredibly significant figure in our history, the leader of the expedition that brought Europe to the Western Hemisphere. His critics note though that he also did some horrible things, enslaving people, killing them, and taking land and resources from native people.

For me, holidays like this aren’t about celebrating personal qualities and characteristics about someone like Columbus. These holidays are about celebrating the significance in history. There’s little denying that Columbus was significant. In school, we’re all taught about the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria, how Columbus sailed here in 1492, and how the Italian man flew under the flag of Spain at the time. Popular history calls him the person who “discovered” the Americas, which is both incorrect (Leif Erickson and the Norse were probably here 400-500 years earlier) and extremely Euro-centric in it’s view (how about the people who were here already, don’t they count?). Even so, Columbus did bring Europe to the Western World, and set the events into motion that brought us the United States just under 300 years later. He also may be the first governor removed from office in the Western Hemisphere, when the Spanish crown fired him in 1500. I think that’s significant.

This does not mean I substantively disagree with Columbus’ critics. Columbus indeed brought untold brutality to the new world. He and his allies killed natives, enslaved them, stole their land, and subjected them to terms of existence that most of us would not accept. He did represent a colonialist mentality in his governance here, and he did bring about an era of Euro-centric arrogance that forced the conquered to assimilate to the invaders, in their own homes. In many ways, Columbus and the European leadership of that time were awful people. In many ways, the colonial era in the Western Hemisphere was an awful time of religious intolerance, brutal racism, and ignorance towards human rights. All of this should be noted on Columbus Day. If this is all about history, then we should acknowledge history as it was.

We shouldn’t stop holding Columbus Day though. We should just be honest about what happened. When commemorating history, we should do so in an honest, straight forward manner. So yes, I’ll call it Columbus Day, but that does not mean i’m “celebrating” it.


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