Columbus Day Must Go

Ending the Whitewashing of the Columbus Story

Today is Columbus Day, a day of recognition for the explorer who sailed the ocean blue in 1492. The second Monday of October has been an official holiday in the US since 1937, but it’s time to retire it.

As I was scrolling through social media last night I happened upon the proclamation put out by the Trump administration, that chides Americans—calling us radicals and extremists—who believe this is no longer a day we should, or even can, celebrate. Here’s a snippet:

“Sadly, in recent years, radical activists have sought to undermine Christopher Columbus’s legacy.  These extremists seek to replace discussion of his vast contributions with talk of failings, his discoveries with atrocities, and his achievements with transgressions.  Rather than learn from our history, this radical ideology and its adherents seek to revise it, deprive it of any splendor, and mark it as inherently sinister.”

This rhetoric isn’t surprising, but it is deeply disturbing. It’s also disturbing that, in 2020, more Americans don’t know the story—the actual story—of Christopher Columbus. I’m not only talking about that fact that Columbus never set foot in what is now called the United States of America, but also what he did to the Indigenous populations of the places he did land. The same Columbus who said, “No one should fear to undertake any task in the name of our Saviour, if it is just and if the intention is purely for His holy service,” also said the following:

They (Indigenous peoples) … brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things, which they exchanged for the glass beads and hawks’ bells. They willingly traded everything they owned… . They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features…. They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron. Their spears are made of cane… . They would make fine servants…. With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.

Terrible. Disgusting. But it’s just the tip of the iceberg. Columbus and his men enslaved, raped, and committed genocide. When we actually engage the facts of history, refusing to celebrate a day that honors Columbus isn’t radical or extreme. It’s basic human decency. This day should be set aside to remember, mourn, and learn about and from the Indigenous peoples that were the victims of the Doctrine of Discovery, both at the hands of Columbus and his men, then later at the hands of colonists, and eventually the United States government.

Here are a couple of helpful resources to begin that journey:

An Indigenous People’s History of the United States, by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz. This is one of the most sobering books I’ve ever read. It’s painful, gut-wrenching, and an essential read for anyone who, like me, grew up with a whitewashed picture of American history.

Do you know on whose land you live? Visit Native Land to learn what Indigenous peoples originally lived on the land, and commit to learn about and honor them.

Finally, don’t celebrate Columbus Day. Instead, let’s allow this second Monday of October to be a day set aside to intentionally acknowledge and celebrate Indigenous peoples. Let’s commit to telling the truth about our history as a nation, even when it’s ugly, and let’s commit to working to build a more just, equitable, and compassionate America.