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What are we really celebrating?

problematizing Columbus Day and recognizing Indigenous Peoples’ Day


Columbus Day – a day that honors Christopher Columbus and his arrival to the Americas in 1492. A federal holiday established for people to express their patriotism with parades, fairs, costumes and for some, even a day off from work. But what are we really celebrating?

In the US, Americans are taught to idolize colonizers at a very young age. Columbus has often been described as a brave voyager who traveled unknown seas and discovered uncharted land. In fact, historical American textbooks have romanticized him as an honorable, noble and righteous man whose ideology of exploration opened up opportunities. Over time, as the narratives of colonization have become normalized, so has the erasure of indigenous people – who inhabited this land long before the time of Columbus.

“One of the biggest misconceptions about Columbus is that he was righteous. The truth is that he was wicked and responsible for the rape and murder of innocent indigenous people,” Leo Killsback, a Northern Cheyenne Nation citizen and assistant professor of American Indian Studies at Arizona State University, told CNN.

We should question why we as Americans continue to celebrate him [Columbus] without knowing the true history of his legacy, and why a holiday was created in the first place

Before 1492, millions of indigenous communities had established cities, infrastructure, education, agriculture, social organizations, as well as wealth and sustainability – all of which were thriving. But there was a swift change as Columbus and his settlers viewed this land and its people as an opportunity for commercial gain. It wasn’t long after the “discovery” of America when settlers began to demand superiority and power by raping, stealing, murdering and enslaving indigenous people.

The genocide continued – by some estimates, nearly 90 percent of indigenous people died between the arrival of Columbus and the arrival of the Pilgrims in the 1620’s.

“We should question why we as Americans continue to celebrate him [Columbus] without knowing the true history of his legacy, and why a holiday was created in the first place,” said Killsback.

Today, universities, cities, and states have taken a stance against commemorating Columbus Day and instead are opting to celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day – a day to respect and honor Native communities in the US. And although this day does not turn back the hands of time, it’s an opportunity to recognize the problematic nature of Columbus Day and contextualize the true history of our land.

“This is about taking a stand against racism and discrimination,” said the Seattle City council member Kshama Sawant. “Christopher Columbus played such a pivotal role in the worst genocide humankind has ever known,” she explained. “Learning about the history of Columbus and transforming this day into a celebration of indigenous people and a celebration of social justice … allows us to make a connection between this painful history and the ongoing marginalization, discrimination and poverty that indigenous communities face to this day.”

To learn more about Indigenous Peoples’ Day and to find ways to honor this day, click here.