From the Blog

Columbus Day or Indigenous Peoples’ Day: What We Call It Depends on What We Want to Celebrate

by Christina Horner 

“Our nation was born in genocide when it embraced the doctrine that the original American, the Indian, was an inferior race. Even before there were large numbers of Negroes on our shores, the scar of racial hatred had already disfigured colonial society. From the sixteenth century forward, blood flowed in battles of racial supremacy. We are perhaps the only nation which tried as a matter of national policy to wipe out its indigenous population. Moreover, we elevated that tragic experience into a noble crusade. Indeed, even today we have not permitted ourselves to reject or to feel remorse for this shameful episode. Our literature, our films, our drama, our folklore all exalt it.” –Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Not much has changed in America since Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., almost six decades ago, wrote these words in his book, “Why We Can’t Wait.” The agonizing truth of his words is just as relevant today as it was in 1963.  

Here we are—86 years after president Franklin Delano Roosevelt joined in the crusade to further inflict harm on First Nations by trivializing their experiences and proclaiming Columbus Day as an official federal holiday. Here we are—528 years after Columbus, the lost Italian navigator, anchored in the Bahamas on his quest to find a westward route to India. That fateful day marked the start of the subjugation of the Americas and the obliteration of its Indigenous people.  

What’s in a Name?

There are two common arguments in support of Columbus Day: The first being his alleged “discovery” of America; the second is his supposed reflection of the American Dream. But Columbus has been and continues to be erroneously uplifted as a hero and great explorer who “discovered” America, a land which was already inhabited by people of a multitude of nations who had lived here for millennia before he stumbled across the land en route to Asia: people who had sophisticated cultures, rich traditions, and distinct identities.

Columbus is said to represent the ideals of the American Dream: hope, upward mobility, determination, risk taking, prosperity, and, most ironically, freedom and equality. In reality, he set in full throttle a tsunami of oppression, racism, and degradation with his voyages. He plundered, decimated, and destroyed civilizations in the “New World.” For Indigenous people, every voyage marked another chapter in the annals of history of unspeakable horrors—a nightmare that has yet to end.  

Celebrating Columbus Day honors the gravest of atrocities. Spanning two decades, Columbus is directly responsible for the exploitation, rape, pillaging, murder, enslavement, and genocide of Indigenous people. These are all heinous criminal acts and none of them are worthy of being promulgated as noble deeds. Yet every year on the second Monday of October, we continue to honor the myth of Columbus as a hero.

A Painful History

In 1892, the mythology of Columbus gained national prominence with the first recorded federal recognition in the United States—a country that didn’t even exist in Columbus’s lifetime. President Benjamin Harrison declared Columbus Day as a one-time national celebration. Why? It was a quid pro quo of sorts: a public atonement for the infamous mass lynching of Italian immigrants in 1891. That year, 11 Italians were murdered by an angry White mob in New Orleans. For the sake of comparison: That’s about 10% of the total lynchings of Blacks that same year. There have been thousands more lynchings since then. It’s still unknown how many Indigenous people were murdered by lynching that year.

Many reputable sources refer to this lynching of Italian immigrants as the largest mass lynching in the United States. Yet, three decades prior, on December 26, 1862, there was a mass execution by hanging—lynching by another name—of thirty-eight members of the Dakota Nation at Mankato. Most Americans are woefully ignorant of this Minnesota massacre, as well as the U.S. Dakota War, the event that precipitated it, because of the deliberate attempt to erase the histories and cultures of Indigenous people. Thirty-eight men were lynched after a hasty and biased military tribunal, then buried in a shallow mass grave only to have their bodies exhumed later and used as cadavers.

To understand why the Italians were lynched, it’s important to know that in 1891, Italians were not considered “White,” and were thus subjected to all the miseries of existence that their Indigenous and Black neighbors experienced. Italians were vilified and experienced rampant discrimination not just because of their ethnicity, but also because of their religion and the “swarthy” (a.k.a. dark) color of their skin and for some, the “kinky” texture of their hair. They were the recipients of the same racial epithets as Blacks. They were viewed as just as inferior as Indigenous and Black people and thus experienced the same agonies and penalties as a result of their mere existence.

All that changed in 1937, when Franklin D. Roosevelt proclaimed Columbus Day a national holiday. It signified true acceptance to the club of White Privilege. Now, Italians officially and permanently were bestowed all the benefits of “whiteness.” Like other White people, their lives now had value. The same can’t be said for their Indigenous neighbors.

Making Change

Continuing the racist practice of exalting Columbus romanticizes and sanitizes the troubled history of the colonization of the Americas. It is a willful dereliction of our duty as teachers, administrators, superintendents, and school committee members to promulgate historical fact and not fabrication.. 

The first and most important principle all educators should follow and live by is, “Do no harm.” That is, if you are genuinely committed to educational equity, your integrity obliges you to raise up voices that resound with truth about those who have been intentionally marginalized.  

This means:

  • Fostering a greater understanding of diverse cultures, including Black, Indigenous, and People of Color 
  • Embedding and emphasizing a diversity of issues and perspectives in the curriculum and learning materials  
  • Exploring the global interconnectedness and interdependence of societies, cultures, and economies
  • Acknowledging the ways in which systemic racism affects the lives of Americans

Many schools express a commitment to educational equity, but expressions of commitment are inconsequential in the absence of truth and real action. If the indicators of educational equity shared above (see a full list here) are absent in your classroom, school, or district, then educational equity is, too; and you are, intentionally or not, guilty of perpetuating inequity and injustice. This preserves the lie of white supremacy.

A useful definition of white supremacy, as written by the Challenging White Supremacy Workshop: “White Supremacy is an historically based, institutionally perpetuated system of exploitation and oppression of continents, nations, and people of color by white people and nations of the European continent for the purpose of maintaining and defending a system of wealth, power, and privilege.”

Cultural Reconciliation

None of us can undo the evils of Christopher Columbus. None of us can rectify the unspeakable horrors that Indigenous people endured centuries ago to present. The truth of Christopher Columbus and the agony the day represents must be addressed so that society can begin to heal from its damaging effects.   

Let’s start moving toward reconciliation with Indigenous peoples by discontinuing the cruel practice of glorifying Christopher Columbus. Let’s remove, rename, and replace his statues, plaques, landmarks, and monuments. They all serve as a centuries-old sentence of pain, oppression, genocide, and erasure. Why would we want to honor that? What does that teach our students? 

Let’s take a step toward dismantling systemic white supremacy by demanding that truth, albeit painful, be told about the history of Indigenous genocide and the forced removal by colonizers from their lands. Let’s recognize the atrocities they have endured for centuries. Most important, let’s promote Indigenous visibility and survival with a public and federal proclamation that despite all the suffering, despite the pain, they are still here. Let’s celebrate the strength, wisdom, and resiliency of Indigenous Nations and the people they represent—the true heroes of Turtle Island.