Why Christopher Columbus is Canceled and Indigenous Peoples’ Day Is In

In elementary school, most of us were introduced to Christopher Columbus as the man who “sailed the ocean blue.” We were taught to think of him as a “savior” of sorts. We were encouraged to admire the bravery he exercised to sail across the Atlantic in exploration of the “New World.”

Most of us were told that Christopher Columbus was an explorer who should be praised for his voyages. As we grew older, some of us have come to learn the truth. Christopher Columbus, along with many other European explorers, was not as innocent of a man as American History likes to paint him. These truths have caused celebrating Columbus Day to become a slightly controversial topic. In fact, in recent years many people find it offensive to the Indigenous people of America to celebrate him. A day highlighting and praising a man who is responsible for stealing land, enslaving some, and murdering most of our Indigenous ancestors, Columbus Day for Native Americans is a chilling reminder of genocide.

The Misconceptions of Christopher Columbus

There are many misconceptions about Christopher Columbus and his “discovery” of the Americas. It is common for Americans to believe Christopher Columbus was the first to discover the Americas, but there are several inconsistencies in that narrative.

Myth #1: There were many European explorers

First, there were multiple explorers traveling before Columbus. According to historians, it is impossible to say exactly who was the very first European voyager to stumble across the Americas. It is, however, a known fact that Columbus was not the first nor the last.

Myth #2: You cannot discover land already inhabited

Secondly, it is impossible to discover something if there are already people who have created a home there. Mark Charles, Native American and co-author of the book Unsettling Truths: The Ongoing, Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery chronicles a time when he attended a protest at a Christopher Columbus Day ceremony. In the midst of the crowd he declared, “You cannot discover lands already inhabited.” Soon a white man in a suit grabbed him by the arm and told him “you are not welcome here” and walked him away from the ceremony. Reflecting on this experience Charles further writes, “You cannot discover lands already inhabited. That process is known as stealing, conquering, or colonizing. The fact that America calls what Columbus did ‘discovery’ reveals the implicit racial bias of the country – that Native Americans are not fully human.”

Columbus According to the Native American Experience

The truth is, when Columbus arrived on the land now known as North America he came across a large community of Native American people who had already built a life for themselves. It was obvious that Columbus, like most colonizers, had little to no regard for the lives of the Indigenous people that were already living in peace and harmony. Columbus observed the way that the indigenous people were living, and because it was not identical to the way that he and his colleagues existed back in Europe, he claimed it was “savage” and “uncivilized.” This was all the justification he needed to abuse and exploit the Indigenous people. 

Pain & Plagues

Christopher Columbus brought nothing but pain and suffering to the Indigenous people. I’m sure the Natives were confused and frightened by his presence. It was Christopher Columbus and his team that brought new diseases to the Americas. These diseases, that were new and unfamiliar to the Indigenous people killed many of them. Their bodies and immune systems were not equipped or prepared to fight off illnesses and diseases that were common in Europe.

Panel from the Florentine Codex depicting smallpox outbreaks in the Americas during the 16th century via Wikimedia Commons

Enslavement, Erasure, and Extermination

In addition, Christopher Columbus also enslaved the Natives, which, when observing the pattern that colonizers all seem to follow, is saddening but not surprising. Instead of doing the work and building his own cities on the land that he had already snatched out of their hands, he also forced them to work for absolutely nothing. In recent years, many researchers and historians have discovered information that leads them to believe that he was also exploiting young children and sending them into sex slavery, if not also using them for his own benefit and pleasure. 

The Case for Indigenous People’s Day

Photo credit: Michelle R. Smith/AP
A sign reading “stop celebrating genocide” sits at the base of a statue of Christopher Columbus on Oct. 14, 2019, in Providence, R.I., after it was vandalized with red paint on the day named to honor him as one of the first Europeans to reach the New World. A sign reading “stop celebrating genocide” sits at the base of a statue of Christopher Columbus on Oct. 14, 2019, in Providence, R.I., after it was vandalized with red paint on the day named to honor him as one of the first Europeans to reach the New World.

In the wake of frustrations around racism many Christopher Columbus statues around the world have come up with head’s missing, social media has promoted the idea of Indigenous people’s Day as opposed to Columbus Day, and many Indigenous people have used their platforms to speak out about the pain that the day brings about and how we should all work to turn this day into a celebration of their culture.

Indigenous people have always gotten the short end of the stick. Their land was taken from them, their culture erased, and their people exterminated. And in response, America gives them Reservations to crowd their tribes onto, mocks their culture, and gives little to no thought about their well being. They have little to no representation in our media and government, and their culture is repeatedly mocked and disrespected. Christopher Columbus was not a hero, but he also is not exclusively responsible for the massacre and overall mistreatment of the Indigenous peoples. European colonizers as a whole and the continued American caste culture are to blame for the sufferings of these people.

We cannot turn back the clock and take back the terrible things that were done to the indigenous people. But we can start a new trend. We can celebrate the rich culture and contributions that Indigenous people bring to our country. Going forward, if our schools will not teach our youth the ugly truth about colonization, it must be everyone’s personal duty to inform, educate, and most importantly continue to support and help preserve the Indigenous people in our country.