By: Elizabeth Klein
This past Monday marks 525 years since Christopher Columbus arrived in the Americas. While many feel that Columbus Day is a rightful celebration of the man who paved the way for the foundation of our country, others see Columbus in a different light; many claiming that he was a brutal man whose voyage led to the death and enslavement of thousands of natives. This debate has prompted discussions of replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day, which would acknowledge the atrocities committed against Native Americans after Columbus landed in the Americas. Because of Columbus’s transgressions against Native Americans and his negative influence on their society, a holiday honoring Native Americans is a better alternative than having a national holiday to commemorate a man who damaged the prosperity of an entire race of people.
First off, let’s talk about the word “discover.” In almost every textbook, essay, article, or reference to Columbus, he is credited with “discovering” the Americas. But one thing must be made clear: Columbus did not discover the New World. Americas were growing and prospering long before he arrived in 1492; indigenous Americans had been developing complex societies for centuries. They formed well-functioning economies, allowed for greater gender equality, and experienced an agricultural revolution long before the Europeans. They built impressive cities, created calendars, and established aqueduct systems. They forged vast empires; developed complex religions; and made advancements in science, math, and medicine. They were not a nation of savages, as Columbus would later refer to them. They were intelligent, capable people who were only looked down upon because their way of life was different than the Europeans. So, Columbus did not “discover” this group of mighty people or the land they possessed. He traveled to the Americas and met them. And he wasn’t even the first to find them.
About 500 years earlier, Leif Eriksson was born to Erik the Red, the man who founded Greenland’s first European settlement. Around the year 1000, Eriksson sailed to a land southwest of Greenland after either hearing a report about unexplored territory there or accidentally coming upon it while sailing. Historians believe Eriksson landed in present-day Newfoundland, which he called Stone Slab Land. He and his crew likely spent a winter there before returning to Greenland. Eriksson didn’t colonize the land; he didn’t meet any natives, and he never again returned to the new land he’d seen. Columbus’s explorations are obviously the more celebrated because they led to the colonization of North America and European migration to the continent. But to credit Columbus with discovering the Americas when another European explored it half a millennium earlier isn’t a very accurate reason to celebrate Columbus Day.
But the phrasing of Columbus’s actions are not so important as his actions themselves. To discuss this, we must define what his accomplishments were and were not. Columbus did open the New World to colonization. He did promote European settlement of North America. He did set the stage for increased commerce and trade between the nations of the world. However, he did not prove that the earth was round by sailing to the Americas. Every educated European in the 15th century knew the earth wasn’t flat, thanks to the work of Greek philosophers hundreds of years earlier. Consequently, Columbus did not prove that one could reach the East by sailing west. Since people knew the earth was a sphere, they made that connection themselves. In actuality, Columbus did not even reach the East. When he landed in America, he truly believed that he was in Asia. He called the Native Americans “Indians” because he thought they were in India. Even though navigators during his lifetime believed he was wrong, Columbus clung onto the belief that he’d found the passage to Asia for the rest of his life.
So what happened when Columbus set foot in the Americas that caused so much controversy over the holiday in his name?
When Columbus found the Americas in 1492, he’d only found a part of it: Hispaniola. There, he met the Arawaks, Taínos, and Lucayas—the area’s native inhabitants. He soon discovered that the natives were incredibly trusting and hospitable; in one of his letters, Columbus states that the Natives were “so unsuspicious and so generous with what they possess[ed].” Instead of appreciating the kindness of these Natives, Columbus exploited them. He claimed their land for Spain and named himself governor. In his search for resources to ship to Spain, Columbus noticed that some of the Natives were wearing gold jewelery. Columbus demanded to know where it came from, then began to sate his limitless greed.
Columbus decided to establish gold mines in the area so that he could quickly extract the mineral. He found that the easiest way to do this was take advantage of the Natives’ gentle nature and created a system of labor which required all Natives over the age of 14 to produce a certain amount of gold for the Spanish every three months. Those who did not meet such demands had their hands cut off and tied around their neck. Those working often died of exhaustion. Reports from Bartolomeu de las Casas, one of Columbus’s former men who defected after seeing Columbus’s mistreatment of the Natives, says that his crew killed men, women, and children often without reason. Often times, the Natives couldn’t handle the brutal slavery, committed mass suicide, and killed their own children so they could escape the abuse. 250,000 Natives died in Haiti alone.
It cannot be argued that this treatment of Native Americans was simply the societal norm of the time because it wasn’t. When Spain heard of the abuse Columbus was inflicting upon the Natives, he was arrested and brought to the country in chains. There, his governorship was taken away. Even in 15th-century Europe, a continent known for its brutal conquerings, Columbus’s treatment of the Natives was considered disgraceful. It isn’t as if Columbus didn’t know better or was acting the way a typical European conqueror might. What he did to the Natives was horrific, sadistic, and villainous, and even the Spanish knew it.
Yet, as a nation, we still decide to take a day to commemorate and memorialize Christopher Columbus. Just the contact between Europeans and Native Americans left the latter susceptible to diseases that decimated their population, but he did far worse than that. He chose to enslave them, abuse them, mutilate them, dehumanize them, and slaughter them. His voyage undoubtedly impacted history in exceptional ways. It’s true that he paved the way for America’s future. All of history would’ve been exceptionally impacted had he not opened the Americas to European colonization. But for non-Natives, that’s a one-sided perspective. To Native Americans, Columbus’s voyage led to their death by the millions. They never recovered, and never will, from the mass death he caused them. When he opened up the Americas, it benefited only the Eastern Hemisphere; native American populations began to diminish, along with their culture, religion, property, and society. As Europeans rejoiced over the expansion of the world, Native Americans saw their world slip away.
It’s been 525 years since Columbus reached the Americas. That marks 525 years of Americans neglecting the rights and freedoms of Native Americans. Those of us without indigenous ancestry are the newcomers to the United States, yet we treat the original owners of this land in a manner that is disgusting and cruel. And while we’d like to think that times have changed, they haven’t. We routinely ignore and neglect the desperate petitions of Native Americans because we’ve never entirely cast off Columbus’s prejudice toward them. We ignored their protests over the Dakota Access Pipeline. We ignore their requests over the name of the Washington R*dskins. We ignore the fact that Native Americans tend to have higher suicide rates than other ethnicities. We ignore the significant wage gap that exists between white people and Natives. We ignore them as a people, and we need to stop. It’s been 525 years since Columbus came and ruined their lives, and what are we doing about it? What have we done to address that? What have we done to show that we stand in solidarity with those who knew this land first? What have we done?
An Indigenous Peoples’ Day cannot solve the many problems Native Americans face in today’s society. It won’t make their lives suddenly easier. It won’t stop the discrimination they face on a daily basis. It won’t erase the centuries of abuse they endured after Columbus found the New World, but it’s a start. Replacing a holiday that celebrates the achievements of a man whose actions irreparably damaged the Native American community with one that honors Natives instead shows that society acknowledges the injustices they have suffered.