Columbus Day Controversy: Celebrating the Demise of Indigenous People?


Columbus Day

Celebrated each year on the second Monday in October, Columbus Day is increasingly filled with controversy due to the growing awareness that the explorer’s 1492 arrival in the New World spurred the demise of millions of indigenous people. Christopher Columbus was an Italian-born explorer funded by Spanish monarchs Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand. This year the holiday falls on October 13.

In addition to the controversy over the fate of the Native Americans encountered by Columbus, there is the fact that he did not actually discover America. There is evidence that Columbus was not the first European to sail across the Atlantic Ocean, with that recognition going to Viking explorers who traveled from Scandinavia in the 10th century. He also never reached mainland North America, instead landing in the Bahamas, and later Cuba. In addition, the country was obviously already populated by indigenous people who had “discovered” it long before Columbus arrived.

Not all states in the U.S. celebrate the anniversary of the discovery of the country. Perhaps beginning the demise of the controversial Columbus Day, some locations are beginning to celebrate Indigenous People’s Day. It is not a public holiday in some states, and others celebrate Native Americans’ Day. Many groups want the holiday’s name changed because they say Columbus was responsible for genocide.

Columbus Day was proclaimed a national holiday by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1937, largely due to lobbying by the Knights of Columbus, an influential fraternal benefits organization. The original celebration took place in 1792 in New York to commemorate the 300th anniversary of Columbus’ landing. President Benjamin Harrison issued a proclamation in 1892 that encouraged Americans to mark the 400th anniversary with patriotic festivities.

Opposition to Columbus Day dates back to the 19th century, when anti-immigrant groups rejected the holiday because of its Catholicism association. More recently the protests have come from Native Americans and other groups who are opposed to the celebration of the colonization of America that indirectly resulted in the death of millions. In addition to infectious diseases brought by European settlers that decimated native populations, warfare between indigenous people and colonists claimed many more lives.

Columbus’ image as a heroic explorer has also been placed in doubt. It is now known that he and his men forced the native people they found in the Bahamas into slavery, and imposed torture and barbaric forms of punishment on them, including cutting off noses or ears of those who would not submit. Columbus was also confused as to where he was, thinking when he sighted Cuba that it was China. He also thought Hispaniola, an island in the Caribbean, might be Japan.

In addition to the deaths of many of the native people in the Americas, it is clear now that the arrival of European settlers, including Columbus, led to the loss of a significant amount of the culture and history of those people. In cities and towns that have seen the demise of the controversial Columbus Day celebrations, many use the day to honor the indigenous population with such activities as pow-wows, traditional dances and lessons about Native American people. In other parts of the U.S. the day is a celebration of Italian-Americans heritage.

By Beth A. Balen

Chicago Now