Rethinking Columbus Day

The United States has only a few federal holidays which honor individuals. Martin Luther King Jr. Day is the third Monday in January, while the third Monday of February is reserved for remembering George Washington. The second Monday in October is Columbus Day, a holiday intended to honor the “discovery” of the Americas by remembering Christopher Columbus’ first landing in the Bahamas on Oct. 12, 1492.

The event and the man should be remembered, but not celebrated. Christopher Columbus is the infamous father of the trans-Atlantic slave trade (that distasteful element of the “Columbian Exchange” too often glossed over in high school history textbooks) and was an unspeakably cruel human being. As the Spanish “Governor of the Indies,” Columbus used horrific methods of torture to subdue the natives, enslaved whole indigenous populations to have them mine for gold and sold girls as young as nine as sex slaves to other European colonists. Whole native villages are recorded as having committed suicide en masse to escape the atrocity of living under his governorship.

Historian Jared Diamond has highlighted the significance of European resistance to pathogens (developed via European society’s exposure to urban living and communicable livestock diseases) as an important element of the success of European conquest and imperialism in the Americas, but Columbus’ personally instituted political policies are certainly to blame for much of the decimation of the indigenous peoples he encountered. In the revised version of his well-researched review of American high school history textbooks, Lies My Teacher Told Me, James W. Loewen stated: “Estimates of Haiti’s pre-Columbian population range as high as eight million people … a census of Indian adults in 1496 … came up with 1.1 million … Kirkpatrick Sale estimates that a more accurate total would probably be in the neighborhood of three million.” Columbus is responsible for the genocide of approximately 5 million Haitians.

Columbus didn’t discover the Americas, as evidenced by the advanced native civilizations he and other European explorers encountered. He wasn’t even the first Eurasian explorer to reach the Americas — Vikings traveled from Greenland and Iceland to Labrador, Baffin Land, Newfoundland, Nova Scotia and possibly even south of Cape Cod during the earliest part of the last millennium. Additional anthropological evidence exists to support claims that Afro-Phoenician explorers reached the Americas up to two millennia prior to the Vikings.

If Columbus was neither a person worth honoring, nor an original, then why do we celebrate Columbus Day? Some states (Alaska, Oregon and Hawaii) have chosen not to celebrate the holiday. Utah’s Native American heritage is something actually worth remembering, much more so than an origin myth celebrating Eurocentricism, colonialism and cultural imperialism, which is why this column suggests that Salt Lake City follow the lead of Berkeley and Santa Cruz in California, Minneapolis in Minnesota, the state of South Dakota and Seattle in Washington in declaring the date to be the alternate holiday of Indigenous Peoples’ Day. While some (notably the popular online comic The Oatmeal) have suggested the holiday be changed to remember Bartolomé de las Casas, the Spanish historian and slaver-turned-social-revolutionary that battled for social equity in the “New World,” it would be most fitting to honor our nation’s origin and discovery by honoring its original discoverers.

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