The Problem with Columbus Day

by ravenswingpoetry

From a protest in Seattle, WA against Columbus Day. (courtesy of NPR.COM)

[Image description: two people standing outside. Only their arms and parts of their legs are visible. One on the viewer’s left holds up a white sign written in black marker: “Rethink Columbus Day!!!” Below that, a wanted posted with the face of Christopher Columbus. Next to that, the person on the viewer’s right holds up a round, tan object. The front is painted with two drawings of birds: one black on top, and the other in red on the bottom.]

Today is Indigenous Peoples Day.

Notice I did not say Columbus Day.

Christopher Columbus did not discover anything except for new ways to expand Europe’s colonialist influence around the world: particularly, into the Americas. Celebrations of Columbus Day — and what many of us were taught in history classes as young children and teenagers — gloss over several very glaringly ugly aspects of the Italian explorer’s conqueror’s true history.

Many others have done far more research and have written more intelligent articles than I could produce right now. Particularly enlightening is this article from Indian Country Today Media Network, which documents, among other things:

  • how Columbus and his men described the natives as either docile potential servants or bloodthirsty cannibals;
  • their enslavement of the natives to work in gold mines;
  • countless instances of rape and murder committed by Columbus and his men; and
  • how Columbus provided Natives to his men as sex slaves.

If you can stomach it, you can read the rest of the article to truly understand the barbarism that Columbus and his men committed. The article also explains how Columbus Day became a national holiday. What some see as a celebration of an explorer and a Catholic hero is really a celebration of the fact that Native peoples in the Americas were murdered, raped, enslaved, erased of their cultures by indoctrination inside “Indian schools”, and forced off their land onto reservations.

Celebrating Columbus Day is putting one’s stamp of approval on genocide. And besides how Columbus opened the door for other European explorers to invade Turtle Island, one has to consider the linkage between these events and the Atlantic Slave Trade in which at least 10 to 15 million Africans (and that’s a conservative estimate) were abducted and brought over to North and South America.

I do have personal investment in this issue. I am not only of African descent, but I am also part Native: Lenape on my father’s side, and Cherokee on my mother’s. Both of these are undocumented, and the inability to document one’s Native ancestry is one of the aftereffects of all of this genocide and erasure, which themselves are a direct product of European colonialism of Turtle Island. Also, the legacy of African slavery has left me unable to trace back my family roots, among other things. Going beyond my personal concerns, you have the construction of a whole insidious social, cultural, and legal system of anti-Black racism, supported by ideologies such as eugenics and a twisting of theology and Biblical Scripture, put into place to justify enslavement. When I think of all of this, it kinda makes me wish I had a TARDIS to go back and stop Columbus from even settling sail.

That last statement was not a joke.

Well, maybe it’s not as simplistic as that — other European explorers and conquerors would come and commit equally horrific, if not worse atrocities, than Columbus. (Think about Cortes and Coronado a moment.) But it’s not hard to imagine how Columbus running his mouth might stir up the greed of other nations and explorers to “come and partake of the riches.” Celebrating such horrific acts — ones that people would easily click their tongues about and shake their heads if they happened today in any part of the world — is highly illogical, not to mention continues to promote the justification of the erasure of Native and African cultures and people.

As of the date of this post, 9 cities in the United States have abolished Columbus Day in favour of Indigenous Peoples Day — with Albuquerque, NM being the latest to do so. This needs to happen nationwide.  Acknowledging one of the ugliest parts of American history is long overdue. Of course, a massive move to acknowledge this also involves acknowledging that the United States, and other countries in the Americas, were built on slave labour and stolen land.

We’re waiting.

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