November 28

Blog #115 – Columbus Day – keep it or pitch it?

Christopher Columbus is credited with having discovered the New World in 1492, but not necessarily America (even though a lookout on his ship, Rodrigo, claimed that he saw land first).  How people interpret this fact is the subject of intense historical and cultural debate across the world.  The day honoring the discovery, October 12, is a national holiday, but for some historians and cultures, this day is marked as one when Spanish imperialism and genocide of the Native Americans began.

Those who want to discredit Columbus Day usually start with the wave of violence, slavery and genocide of the Native Americans that began after his “discovery.”  On the island of Hispanola (Haiti / Dominican Republic), the sailors left there after his first voyage were tasked with finding gold and silver and soon tried to put to work the natives of the island.  In subsequent voyages, he searched Central and South America for gold, and the communicable diseases like smallpox and measles that the Europeans had would also wipe out – intentionally or not – the Native populations.  Conquistadors Hernan Cortes and Francisco Pizarro exploited divisions among the ruling tribes, Aztecs and Incas respectively, to conquer vast empires.  It’s estimated that something like 80% of the 45-100 million Native Americans (historians disagree – Schweikart claimed that there were only 8.5 million Natives in all of the Americas when Columbus arrived) who lived in the New World were wiped out by disease, war, and famine brought on by discovery.  Critics have claimed that the holiday should be renamed “Indigenous Peoples’ Day” to honor all the Native Americans past and present.  In the Zinn section, he outlines the systematic destruction of the Arawak people and how they were eliminated through forced slavery, mining, and diseases.

Here’s John Oliver’s take on Columbus Day:

But was this all Columbus’ fault?  His defenders say, of course not.  Diseases act in random ways and are influenced by many things including stress, food (or lack thereof), poverty and other cultural or economic factors.   Discovery could have brought some of these conditions on, but they weren’t necessarily the primary cause.  Schweikart stated in his piece that there were already different diseases running rampant throughout the Native population before Columbus’ arrival.  Columbus is also given credit for having been a visionary, having convinced the Spanish monarchs to provide him with three ships to sail the Atlantic in search of a newer, quicker route to Asia around the earth.  In fact, Columbus failed in his attempt to find that quicker trade route to Asia.  It would be Magellan who would circumnavigate the globe.  And, Columbus is being blamed for what came in his wake – the Spanish conquistadors, the destruction of Native peoples, and even the African slave trade since that was linked with the opening up of the New World.  Could this attack on Columbus also be a remnant of the Black Legend that grew to fantastical proportions as exaggerated by English Protestants as a way of discrediting the Spanish Catholics?  Too much, much too much indeed, to put on one man’s shoulders.

Another way of looking at this is that when we celebrate Columbus Day, we celebrate America.  Should we acknowledge both the good and the bad that come with America / Columbus?  Or is it more patriotic to revel in America in a “Team America” way with unquestioning loyalty? Or, as the video below discusses, Columbus is a myth that we have embraced.  Is this something that we should jettison?

So, do we keep Columbus Day as is (meaning that it’s an official government / bank holiday)?  Or do we acknowledge Columbus Day with a solemn reminder of what happened to the Native Americans afterwards?  Or do we pitch Columbus Day in favor of celebrating “Indigenous People’s Day”?  Why?  Or is there another option?  If so, explain.  Please use specific examples from the Schweikart / Zinn readings.  

300 words minimum due by Friday (11/30) by class.

Here’s an account of Detroit’s first celebration of Indigenous Peoples’ Day in place of Columbus Day –

A Smithsonian article about replacing Columbus Day w/ Indigenous Peoples’ Day –

A video on why we celebrate Columbus Day (some good reasons about the history of Columbus Day):

The Breakfast Club’s discussion of Columbus Day – Why Native Americans Want to Celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day and not Columbus Day.

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Posted November 28, 2018 by geoffwickersham in category Blogs

54 thoughts on “Blog #115 – Columbus Day – keep it or pitch it?

  1. geoffwickersham (Post author)

    I think that this is an issue that many people feel very passionate about and you will never get complete consensus on. Personally, I don’t care what everyone else decides to celebrate as long as I get a nice three day weekend. This is why I think that the holiday should stay but rather than being labeled Columbus day it should be more ambiguous with local communities deciding what if any public celebrations they should hold. This very stark divide on how to celebrate this holiday can easily be seen in the different passages given to us. The passage created by Schweikart glorifies Columbus, calling him resilient, courageous, and confident and ignores or contests many of his less admirable actions like the treatment of natives by his followers. While I see that many of these stances are not necessarily accurate many celebrated figures are consistently glorified to create a role model different than the original person. I don’t see the benefit of forcibly denouncing this role model in communities that won’t accept the new interpretation regardless. By contrast, Zinn attempts to strip the glorification away from Columbus and labels him as greedy, incompetent, and brutal through his use of quotes. This emphasizes the increasing resistance against the glorified myth of Columbus and an increased interest in the plights of Native Americans. This is a complete flip of the emphasis of the holiday from one glorified man to a loosely defined group and is meant to humanize the people so often forgotten. While better education about what really happened will likely cause a gradual shift towards Indigenous People’s Day it seems sudden and unnecessary to get rid of support for an icon in an area before that is what the people want. After all forcing a token issue like this on people seems more likely to cause resentment than humanization like the intent of Indigenous People’s Day. Therefore, I believe that the holiday should be called Columbus/ Indigenous People’s Day and have local organizers decide what they want to hold for their community resulting in the greatest number of people getting what they want.


  2. Nicholas Skinner

    On october 12 banks close and we celebrate one of the most controversial holidays of the year, Columbus day. We celebrate how Christopher Columbus sailed across the atlantic in 1492 and was one of the first europeans to lay eyes upon the new world. He did this all while looking for a shorter route to India. His discovery led to the mass colonization of north america and eventually the foundation of our great nation. This did not come without a death toll, Columbus brought with him new diseases which spread across the americas killing millions if not hundreds of millions. Columbus was also a brutal explorer, killing natives on every island he went two. Any ones that survived the massacres, diseases, and famine they were enslaved and worked to death in mines and plantations. His discovery also led to the coming of more eroupeners who committed even more atrocities. The myth of columbus was formed during the revolution to give america a non-british hero. This was not a bad at the time, as it gave someone americans a hero they could call their own, therefore strengthening the bond of the young nation. Columbus’s major rise to fame came when large groups of Italian immigrants came to the united states. Like many groups at the time, the Italians were discriminated against for their foreign nationality and their religion. They decided to embrace Columbus, as he was already popular at the time, and push for a day dedicated to him. This would teach everyone about Italy’s contribution to the founding of our county and perhaps ese racial prejudice against them. I believe the myth of Columbus helped unite our country and ese discrimination against Italian immigrants, by fulfilling its purpose i belive it must be put to rest. On october 12 we must reflect on what we did to the natives and give credit to other explorers like who also paved the way, like Leif Erikson.

  3. geoffwickersham (Post author)

    As said perfectly by Howard Zinn, when Columbus arrived in the new world, “The aim was clear: slaves and gold.” Today, when Americans celebrate Columbus Day and the founding of the new world, they miss one crucial part…The enslavement and mass murder of the Indians! When Columbus first stepped foot in the “new world”, he brought only torment and misery. The first misfortune that Columbus brought upon the natives was disease with him to the new world, causing a huge number of deaths among the the population of the Indians and weakening their defenses. Next, after their defenses were gone, he enslaved them and stripped them of their human rights just to make money. The third, and final thing that he did that made an impact on the Indians, was looting. He took their food, land, gold, and spices. Now, not all people have this point of view though. For example, as stated by Larry Schweikart, and Dr. Michael Allen, “Native populations had epidemics long before Europeans arrived. A recent study of more than 12,500 skeletons from sixty-five sites found that native health was on a “downward trajectory long before Columbus arrived.” Or in other words they are saying that the natives kind of did themselves in before the explorers came to the new world. This perspective is fine to have as well, to each his own. Overall though, after looking over the facts again, I believe that we shouldn’t celebrate Columbus Day because it’s disrespectful to the Indians, however, I do believe that we should recognize the suffering that the Native Americans went through. Thus, I came to the conclusion that “Indigenous People’s Day” was the best solution since it creates a sort of compromise. It replaces Columbus Day, and recognizes the Native Americans suffering.


  4. geoffwickersham (Post author)

    I don’s think that we should not continue to celebrate Columbus day because of what he has done to the indigenous people of this country. One of the main things we praise this man for is “discovery”. However, Columbus never discovered anything. There were already people living wherever he landed. All he did was take land for his own gain and attempt to destroy culture and civilization. Besides that, there is ample evidence of Vikings landing in Newfoundland/Labrador around five centuries earlier. Columbus tortured and murdered many thousands of native peoples. He would torture people is horrible ways that were completely inhumane. He would cut off the hands of people living in what now is Haiti for not bringing him enough gold per month. Columbus promised Ferdinand too much gold, they had given him 17 ships and well over a thousand men for his second voyage, But Columbus couldn’t deliver on the gold claim. Columbus believed that he was playing a part in a divine plan to Christianize the world. He believed this was Gods plan for him and his men. As part of this plan, Spaniards aimed to convert native peoples to Christianity. They were supposed to “Bring them to the light,”. But many would be killed if they did not accept Christ, even if they didn’t understand what the Spanish were explaining to them. ( they weren’t all fluent in Spanish.)
    Indigenous Peoples Day celebrates Native Americans and challenges the idea that Christopher Columbus “discovered” America. Berkeley was the first city, and South Dakota the first state, in the United States to recognize the holiday in 1992. I believe that instead of Columbus day we should celebrate a holiday that represents the indigenous people and their struggles, but above all that, the holiday represents their prosperity and hope. The holiday will highlight and celebrate their culture that came long before the Europeans claimed America.

    Lily P.

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