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

6 Responses to "Columbus Day Controversy: Celebrating the Demise of Indigenous People?"

  1. Carrol Freundlich   March 11, 2019 at 1:47 am

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  2. Joseph Reuter   October 31, 2017 at 3:40 pm

    We do not what happened before Columbus arrived here in 1492. Maybe the Indigenous people that were here when he came chased the ESKIMO tribes out of Florida all the way up to ALASKA. Remember Columbus sailed under the SPANISH flag!!

  3. jOMARIN   September 8, 2017 at 5:25 pm

    Hispanics with Christopher Columbus as Captain-General discovered America in 1492.
    Columbus crew – Florida Museum
    What follows is a listing of crew members by vessel along with a … H. Fuson, The Log of Christopher Columbus … 8, 1492 to March 3, 1493 …

  4. Miriam   March 13, 2017 at 2:23 am

    Thank you, Beth. I’m a student writing an essay on the Columbus Day controversy, and your not biased facts clears my ground. I’m for celebrating it, as long it’s not about the man himself but the event.

  5. Michael Schultheiss   October 8, 2014 at 11:12 am

    A few more thoughts:

    Columbus himself is really only a big deal because he was the particular individual whose voyages kicked off the process. No matter what, the encounter between the Old World and the New was going to be bloody and terrible.

    Due to a mixture of geographical, biogeographical and social and political forces, the civilizations of the Eastern Hemisphere were far more advanced than even the most advanced civilizations of the Western Hemisphere.

    This is a description, not a value judgment: speaking in terms of the four-dimension scale of energy capture, urbanization, information technology and war-making ability proposed by Ian Morris in his “Why the West Rules–for Now,” the civilizations of the Old World had enormous advantages over those of the New.

    As to why it was Western Europe rather than the Islamic world, Indic civilization, or East Asia that scooped the Americas, the reasons are actually rather easy to discern. Western Europe was disadvantaged by geography in at least some ways when it came to the rich trade from the east (the Islamic world, the Indian Ocean, China) so Portugal started looking for a route to the east around Africa.

    Spain, of course, hired Columbus to try to find a rout across the Atlantic, and the rest, as they say, is history. Western Europe’s disadvantaged position with respect to the wealth of the east turned into an enormous advantage for crossing the Atlantic and colonizing the Americas.

    Other contributing factors were more particular to Western Europe’s sociopolitical development, and help to explain why North Africa, for example, didn’t get in on colonizing the New World. Western Europe by 1492 had a new model of centralized statecraft in the emergent nation-states of Portugal, Spain, France, and England, one that made for generally more powerful armies with a greater use of firearms than in North Africa (or Italy, for that matter).

    By comparison, the Islamic world’s Early Modern history also includes plenty of impressive feats of empire-building, notably the Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughal empires, but none of these empires was in a good geographical position to colonize the Americas.

    Even if the Ottoman Empire, say, had held the upper hand in the Mediterranean for a longer period, it is difficult to see them really seeking to colonize the Americas, given the enormous scope of their security commitments from the Mediterranean to the Danube to Crimea to the east Anatolian borderlands and the frontier spaces east of Iraq to Yemen to the Indian Ocean.

    East Asia in 1492 included a fragmented Japan, a kingdom in Korea (if memory serves) and a great territorial empire, that of the Ming, in China. Here the immensity of the Pacific is a compelling argument as to why East Asian mariners did not preempt Columbus, despite the fact that the famous Treasure Ships of the early 15th-century Ming were far larger and far more impressive than Columbus’s comparatively small ships.

    In the case of China, at least, there is also the fact that Chinese wealth and technological and cultural sophistication meant that foreigners generally sought out China, rather than the other way around (the Treasure Fleets being a brief exception).

    Had the Pacific been comparable in size to the Atlantic, or better yet a good deal smaller, it is not hard to imagine East Asian explorers, merchants, and then settlers coming to the Americas. There are parallels within the history of East and Southeast Asia, notably Chinese merchants and even colonists who settled in the Philippines and in Southeast Asia prior to European colonization. In reality, of course, the Pacific is immense, and there was no particularly compelling reason for East Asian mariners to try to cross it.

    I am not fond of Columbus the man based on the accounts of his character I have read (even his own men came to loath him), but it is a mistake to see him as anything more than the one individual who, due to a mixture of personal and grand historical forces, went on a voyage that ended up changing the world.

    Many of those changes were awful, but then, much the same could be said about many other chapters of history. It is myopic to fixate on Columbus and the conquerors, settlers and slavers who followed him *without* being willing to take a proper accounting of the broader shape of history, and it is problematic to promote a simplistic moralistic narrative of Noble Savages (or crypto-Noble Savages) and the Evil White Man.

  6. Michael Schultheiss   October 8, 2014 at 7:38 am

    Beth, what an absolutely excellent article! I appreciate your honest and candid yet balanced perspective on this.


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