“In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.”
This happy little ditty is what my grade school teacher used to help us remember the year that Christopher Columbus discovered the United States of America.
It wasn’t until I got to college and took a class in Latin American history that I learned a different, more accurate depiction of America’s founding. It wasn’t so much that he discovered America — it’s more that he stumbled onto American shores after being lost at sea for a long-ass time, and then invaded a land already inhabited by the Tainos. He then screwed over the welcoming Taino people and claimed discovery in the name of God and country.
What blew my mind when I learned all of this is that Columbus essentially went on a slaughtering spree in a foreign land, and instead of being viewed as a monster and poor sailor, he gets his own holiday.
Turns out I’m not the only one confused by the painting of Columbus as a hero. Eight states in the U.S. have abolished Columbus Day and replaced it with the more historically accurate Indigenous People’s Day. Rather than celebrating “discovery,” people in Albuquerque, NM; Lawrence, KS; Portland, OR; St. Paul, MN; Bexar County, TX; Andarko, OK; Olympia, WA; and Alpena, MI are commemorating the great loss of life that took place when Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492.
While these cities have abolished Columbus Day, it is still a federally recognized holiday and the struggles of the indigenous of the 21st century continue to be ignored. America is continuing to view history through a white-washed lens of happiness and ends justifying the means.
A lot of pro-Columbusees argue that without the work of Columbus, America would never have come to existence. Here’s a little problem with that flawed logic: the American territory was already inhabited! Had Columbus not arrived with his big boats and small pox, then America would have been developed by the Tainos as they themselves evolved and expanded through time. Maybe it wouldn’t be called the United States of America, but it would still be a place that existed and was home to thousands of people.
In today’s post-Columbus America, Indigenous people suffer massive inequalities, abuses, and economic strife mostly because of the “reservation” system in which certain amounts of land are granted to natives and marked as sovereign. But these sovereign lands are often the worst pieces of land the American government has to give, and even then it can still be taken away on a whim.
So while a few cities are doing something morally and historically right, it’s up to those of us in the remaining towns, cities, and boroughs to strengthen the outcry to abolish Columbus Day. Continuing the celebration of Columbus Day would be akin to Germans having a day to celebrate the invasion and eventual annexing of Poland in the mid-1900s. It wouldn’t make any sense, right? Well, neither does continuing to teach our kids that Columbus did something heroic simply by virtue of landing on these shores.
Image from Wikimedia Commons: Native American Chiefs, 1865