Unless you’re a postal worker or bank employee, Columbus Day is a forgettable holiday. School teachers prepare lessons and some of your kids may come home with renderings of Columbus’ ships or desperate to recite the clever rhyme, “In fourteen hundred ninety two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” There are usually a few parades or municipal activities to be found.
Folks my age, us glittering youngsters of the 80s and 90s, remember a series of baffling, poorly-produced cartoons about Columbus’ voyage as he tried to figure out the true shape of the earth He lands and thinks he must have reached India, later realizing his mistake and starts interacting with a new, undiscovered world. And then begins a delightful relationship with the native populations, migration, settlement of the new country, with liberty and justice for all.
Some of the story seems pretty reasonable but only as long as you leave the stones of the Master Narrative unturned. But dig a little deeper and you’ll realize that our beloved tale of Columbus and his discovery of America is a hot, steaming pile of bullshit.
Where does this story fail us? Shall we count the ways?
Let’s start with the easy ones:
- You can’t “discover” something that humans already know about. People already lived there—millions of them. Pretty straightforward.
- People in Columbus’ time knew the earth was round. The Greek mathematician Eratosthenes calculated the circumference of the earth almost 1,000 years before. Both the shape and the size of the earth were pretty well-established by 1492.
- Columbus knew about Eratosthenes’ calculations but still chose to believe that the earth was much smaller when he concluded he must have hit the Spice Islands and not a new place. He wouldn’t admit he was wrong for 6 years.
- The first Europeans to set foot anywhere now known as North America were the Vikings, about 500 years before Columbus was even thinking about voyaging.
- Columbus didn’t even really locate the place we now know as the United States! He located the Bahamas. Amerigo Vespucci, an Italian contemporary of Columbus, definitively proved Columbus wrong about finding the Spice Islands.
So, there are 5 pretty obvious reasons that the telling of this story and the actual existence of this holiday make no logical sense. Why would Americans celebrate Columbus, who never actually even set foot in this country? We can’t just let this go to a lack of logic—after all, we have days devoted to all kinds of things in the U.S.
So why pick on Columbus?
Because he was a complete fucking bastard. He was not just a shitty explorer, he was also a terrible human being. Columbus received aid from indigenous people upon his arrival, and apparently mistook their kind assistance as a secret desire to be enslaved in a foreign land. While he may have brought back “knowledge” or even gold, his biggest contribution was human blood, kidnapping, and enslavement. My, what a guy.
Then, as white men with power and privilege are wont to do, he got worse. The Spanish inexplicably gave him a governorship. I don’t have to tell you how this story ends— genocide, bondage, the destruction of entire cultures, violence, disease, and famine. Columbus destroyed everything he touched.
So, Columbus is out. Who should we be celebrating, then? Leif Erickson, Viking captain and general badass? Amerigo, our amigo, master of making Columbus look ridiculous? The pilgrims for landing and settling?
Or perhaps nothing at all. Maybe we should take this opportunity to do the American thing and let darkness fall over these horrible blights in our past and have them fade into our collectively obscured memory. Not this time. Not again.
People have already started the movement to take this day from Columbus and create a celebration of the native populations who were all but eradicated by many of our ancestors. In 1992, the city of Berkeley in California was the first to declare Columbus Day “Indigenous Peoples Day”, a holiday which includes demonstrations of Native American traditions, including dancing and crafts. In 2014, Seattle, WA and Minneapolis, MN did the same thing.
This year, at least 10 cities will be celebrating Indigenous Peoples’ Day today, including most recently Oklahoma City. Almost every story we know about European settlement starts with aid from Native Americans. Not just Columbus or individual explorers but the tribes who helped the pilgrims survive their first New England winter; the woman, Sacajawea, who essentially defined the explorations of Lewis & Clark; and the Native Americans who have fought in American conflicts—the Civil War, World War 2, and others.
As much fun as we’ve had these last 81 years celebrating white imperialists, it’s time for us to back off our history of errors. Columbus is no more a hero than Cortés or any of the other “explorers” and conquistadors who claimed ownership and plundered. That any indigenous people still exist in the United States is remarkable in the face of hundreds of years actively pursuing their cultural and physical eradication.
So what can we do better as Americans to support Native Americans? For one, we should actively support and uplift those who work to promote the contributions of Native Americans and create more awareness of tribal cultures and practices. We can also stop wearing sacred elements of tribal culture as a costume, but that’s another topic for another day.
Perhaps the most obvious answer, however, is to stop hosting parades, parties, and shopping events around one of the greatest perpetrators and perpetuators of Native American genocide.