As the days leading up to the second Monday in October dwindled, California cities raced to replace the 80-year-old Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Four cities (including Long Beach) adopted the new holiday in just a span of two weeks, with Los Angeles spearheading the recent movement in late August.
The official city holiday will be a paid one for all city employees, and reserves the same status as its predecessor.
In California, Berkeley was the first city to take this step in correcting Columbus’s controversial celebration, with San Fernando and L.A. trailing behind over 10 years later. Additionally, the states of Vermont, Alaska and Minnesota celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day alongside 54 other cities throughout the remainder of the U.S.
Change rarely happens all at once, but rather in small gradual steps in a new direction. And in this case, it’s the right direction.
Columbus Day always seemed to be a rather trivial celebration. As a federal holiday it’s been recognized in all 50 states, but has never really been uniformly observed: students generally don’t get the day off from school and most businesses stay open. It’s a holiday that doesn’t hold much personal value, but what it does have is renown — for all the wrong reasons.
Not only is Columbus Day misleading, but it’s one that flippantly disregards a collective 400 years of mass genocide against nearly 10 million of North America’s indigenous people.
Like most explorers, Columbus’ motives for reaching the Americas were selfish. He craved fame and fortune, and writings in his journal reveal that he regarded the natives living in the Bahamas as obstacles. It has been estimated that by the early 16th century, nearly 3 million indigenous people were killed at the hands of Columbus, either by violence or catastrophic disease carried over on his ships. His conquest for gold, land and his resolute insistence to convert people to Christianity are all agendas that echo too closely to the U.S. western colonization and expansion that ushered in mass deaths like the Trail of Tears or the American-Indian wars.
Most people living in the U.S. grew up crediting Columbus with the heroic feat of discovering the Americas. Cute mnemonics like, “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue,” helped us remember him, while teachers glossed over his voyage with fun coloring and crafts.
But Columbus was not the first, not even close. It was it was groups of migrants traveling painstakingly down from Asia over a massive icy land bridge stemming from Alaska nearly 15,000 years ago who truly discovered what we know as north America today.
Columbus wasn’t even the first European man to anchor his ships on North American soil, as many might also believe. Scandinavians led by Leif Eriksson and his band of Viking explorers reached the coasts of Canada nearly half a millennium before Columbus was even born.
His celebration in the U.S. is even more bizarre, given that Columbus’ boots never actually set foot on north American soil. He landed first in the Bahamas (which he mistakenly thought was India) and later explored parts of central and south American coasts. But his asinine use of the pejorative term “Indians,” for the indigenous people there is a term we adopted and still (incorrectly) use in the U.S.
Persecuted in the U.S. since the first English settlement of Jamestown in the 17th century, and decimated for decades by the massacres of manifest destiny, native Americans have and still struggle today with a government that has never cared for their best interests. Poverty rates are the second highest, save for african American demographics, educational institutions on reservations are subpar, their land is continually vyed after for natural resources, and alcoholism and suicide are a public health concern among these communities.
For a group still marginalized everyday, Columbus Day was just another stinging slap in the face, a reminder of how easily America overlooks– even celebrates– injustice so long as the ends justify the means.
Be they arguments, politics or wars, history has always been written by the winners. And as much as we might hope that they are, winners aren’t always right or on the side of good.
Just recently it seems we’ve come to a crossroads in our history where people aren’t idly sitting by or content to mutter complaints under their breath about the head-scratching honorations that our country has allowed to proliferate.
The controversy that led to three deaths during the violent protests in Charlottesville, Virginia centered around the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. We know he fought on the wrong side, for the confederacy, and lost. Yet despite this a statue was put up in his honor, in the name of “culture.” It was a perpetuating symbol of hate and oppression for those of non-white descent who still feel shunned and persecuted by their country.
Columbus Day is a reminder of hardship and loss– even if not directly connected to the Italian-Spaniard himself.
Just because something has been a certain way for a long time doesn’t mean it’s good and should continue to be accepted. Even though many may very well know that Columbus Day is an erroneous misrepresentation of American history, it’s imperative that our government, even on a small local scale, recognize it too. It’s time to give credit and due appreciation to those who rightly deserve it– the Native Americans.