Acknowledging Columbus’ Painful Legacy

Totem Pole, Washington state

The Trail of Tears took place nearly 200 years ago, and thousands of Native Americans died during this forced migration. Yet, in the United States we don’t often reflect on this black mark in our history. We do annually reflect on the arrival of Christopher Columbus to the America’s in 1492. An arrival that marks the start of the European colonization of the continent, as well as the subsequent death and subjugation of indigenous people and the establishment of the Atlantic slave trade.

Today marks Columbus Day — a federal holiday since the 1930s. It wasn’t until I heard of Howard Zinn’s The People’s History of the United States (published first in 1980) that I began to reconsider the American history I’d learned as a child (which painted Columbus as a curious explorer and civilizing cornerstone). The arrival of Columbus in the Bahamas marked a dramatic shift in our nation’s history, but whether it should be celebrated or not is a question in a growing debate. Some activists have sought to change the focus of the holiday towards, “Indigenous People’s Day.”

In observance of the colonization and genocide that followed Columbus’ arrival in the Americas, I’ve gathered a few stories worth checking out today.

1. On Columbus Day, Indigenous Urge Celebration of Native Culture and Teaching of Americas’ Genocide: Democracy Now filmed this segment in Fort Lewis College, which hosts a large Native American student population and an event today called, “Real History of the Americas.” Three women affiliated with the college talk about alternative histories, identity, and cultural trauma experienced by generations of Native Americans.

2. Stand on the Side of Love with Native Women: This blog posted a reminder today about the tenuous position of the Violence Against Women Act facing congress. It’s fitting on what some call “Indigenous People’s Day,” that we remember the disproportionate rates at which Native Women continue to experience sexual assault and violence. One in three Native Women is estimated to be raped in her life.

3. Columbus’ Legacy of Categorization: The Yale student paper published a really interesting column from a Native American student addressing his take on Columbus day and his own identity. He explains how he struggles when people ask him, “How Native are you?” This piece indicates where we still have room for improvement in addressing our history of colonialism and it’s insidious, lingering effects.

Christopher Columbus

4. Columbus Day Vs. Indigenous Peoples’ Day: How About Happy Immigration Day?: Mediaite addressed the conflict of whether or not today should be a holiday. Author Philip Bump dismisses some of the arguments for Indigenous People’s Day with the explanation “People are — and always have been — selfish jerks… Our forefathers were oppressed and were oppressors.” He suggests forgetting the controversy and celebrating the diverse fabric of America caused by immigration. It’s an interesting piece, but it feels dismissive for the sake of a rosy conclusion.

Regardless of the name of the holiday, it’s important for Americans to observe the reality of our history. Acknowledging historical trauma on the Columbus Day holiday provides national validation and healing for part of our tumultuous history and a voice for our Native American fellow citizens.

What are your thoughts on Columbus Day? Is it antiquated? Is it important to maintain?

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