by Sarah J. Jackson
Jackson is an Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at Northeastern University in Boston, MA. She teaches and researches about public narratives of race, gender, and political protest.
[Editor's note: Today is "Columbus Day" in the US, named after and in celebration of the explorer from Genoa who sailed for Spain in the late 15th century. He is credited as the first European to reach the shores of the Americas, landing in the Caribbean in 1492. Columbus Day is an official federal holiday in the US.]
In 2009 an organization called Reconsider Columbus Day produced the following video to raise awareness about the politics and human rights issues surrounding Columbus Day.
While the organization’s website is no longer active, the video says much of what I have to say about Columbus Day and I appreciate that it includes a diverse range of voices while focusing on Indigenous people. That in the last three years the video has only received 250k views probably says something about our willingness as a nation to be challenged on our most fundamental myths and the fact that most of those myths either entirely ignore, or intentionally sanitize, the reality of our country’s origins in colonialism, genocide and slavery. The truth is that most of our national holidays, from the Fourth of July to Columbus Day serve to reinforce an idealized national identity at the expense of the experiences and stories of the colonized and enslaved.
I remember when I first posted the above video to my Facebook page in 2009 a high school classmate who wasn’t friends with me in high school but ended up connected to me online (you know how it goes) responded with “Oh come on, without Columbus none of us would be here.” To me, that small comment sums up everything that is wrong with celebrating Columbus Day. It entirely excludes the Native people of the Americas by assuming that without colonialism “none of us” would be here. Actually, there would be people here. There were people here. And those people, 565 tribes of them, are still here no matter how much more convenient it is for people to imagine the contrary. Further, this sentiment assumes that those of us who did end up in the Americas wanted to be here, that European colonialism helped us, and that we and are better off because of it. Needless to say the decedents of the millions of Africans whose native lands were also colonized, who were enslaved and forcibly brought to “the New World” didn’t choose to be here. Years later many Asians we’re brought to the Americas as cheap labor or immigrated after their own countries were physically and economically colonized and exploited. It goes without saying that globally colonialism didn’t benefit people of African and Asian decent any more than it did indigenous Americans. Yet, we’re all here now together expected to celebrate this holiday as if it is not political and as if it does not completely ignore the history of black, Asian, Native/Pacific Islander Americans and Latinos, people who together will make up 50-percent of this county’s population by 2050.
Oh and one last thing, Columbus (who was actually quite lost when he made his “discovery”) was only a cog in a huge colonial mission to expand an empire. Without him someone else, another explorer (also probably lost), would have stumbled upon the Americas. So without Columbus we would most likely all still be here. Without him small pox laden blankets would have still been given to Native people, Native children would have still died of starvation after being driven from their tribal land, Native women would have still been raped, and Native people would have still been subjected to forced baptisms, death, and relocation. Without Columbus, the Spanish Empire would have sent someone else, and someone else would have started it all, and we’d be celebrating that man’s name. Perhaps then the holiday should more accurately be called Spanish Colonization Day, but that doesn’t sound quite so much like something to celebrate does it.
Is it the case that since the “discovery” of America many people have chosen to immigrate here to pursue a better life and experience greater freedoms? Of course. Is it true that America offers its people many privileges that they would not have elsewhere? Absolutely. But to pretend that those are the only truths while ignoring our history of exploitation and oppression silences countless Americans. To pretend that Columbus, not necessarily the man as an individual, but the man as a representative of the colonial power that was Spain, was a hero explorer who made all of our lives better is a perfect example of a national myth that benefits and justifies exploitation at the expense of the real experiences of people of color.
While Columbus Day is a federal holiday, many states and cities from South Dakota to Berkeley, California have for years chosen to celebrate alternative holidays like Indigenous People’s Day, Native American Day, and American Indian Day. I had many students while living in Minnesota that had gone to high schools in midwestern states with large Native populations that observed such holidays. Here in Boston there is a large and proud Italian community and a park dedicated to Christopher Columbus. This park becomes an especially politicized location this time of year with an Italian American organization dedicated to keeping watch over the statue because of the propensity of activists to splash it with red paint said to symbolize blood. A number of U.S. cities have navigated such tensions by choosing to celebrate Italian Heritage Day in place of Columbus Day, acknowledging the very real and important contributions Italians have made to the United States without perpetuating the sanitized discovery myth the figure of Columbus is specifically linked to.
As an educator and a person who cares about the value of all people’s history and experiences I’ve made the explicit choice to include both Columbus Day and Indigenous People’s Day on the same date on my syllabi. I show the above video to my students in the week leading up to Columbus Day and ask them to discuss their reactions. There is no right or wrong answer. I don’t require that my students agree with my personal feelings about Columbus Day any more than I expect that regarding anything else. I do expect them however, as with everything else, to be willing to think critically about their worldview and be willing to consider the biases of American “history.” I have discovered that most young people today are perfectly willing to hold two contradictory views at once; that Columbus’ voyage to America is a significant part of our historical trajectory AND that it resulted in some of the most shameful acts in our history.
Ultimately, I believe that our history is important. Our real history. The history of all of us. And I believe the history of people who have been excluded and ignored often has the most to teach us about ourselves and about our nation. Which is why I celebrate Indigenous People’s Day.
A couple recommended readings (I can’t help it!): A People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn; American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World, David E. Stannard; Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West, Dee Brown; Indian Country Today Media Network
[Originally posted at wanderinginlove, cross-posted with the author's permission.]
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