Invader, enslaver, mutilator. Rapist and terrorist. On the second Monday of every October, we celebrate Christopher Columbus’ finest qualities.
In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue and left North America’s soil stained red. When he arrived in the Caribbean during his first of four visits to the Americas, an estimated 10 million indigenous peoples lived in what is now the United States. By 1900, only 300,000 remained. Many died from disease, war, relocation and malnutrition.
Along with European diseases, Columbus also brought labor camps where conditions were terrible. When the laborers revolted, he cracked down with murder. To prevent further uprisings, his men paraded dismembered limbs down the streets.
Many other indigenous people were sold into slavery and, especially for young girls, into the sex trade. Many died on their trip to Europe. The 110-year-old national holiday in honor of Columbus, unfortunately, has not.
In those five centuries since, exploitation and devastation never left the Native Americans. After a slew of heinous explorers, President Andrew Jackson herded them off their sacred lands in what is now known as the Trail of Tears to reservations where many remain today in poor-quality housing and infrastructure built upon poor soil.
Much of reservation land is communal, meaning no one single individual owns it. This makes it difficult for residents to take out loans, create credit scores or start a business; improvements to the community cannot be made easily. Much of reservation’s issues come from outsider apathy, too, which tore the Native Americans away from their homes in the first place.
Because of these factors, joblessness, poverty and alcoholism are highly concentrated, and suicide in youth ages 15-24 is two-and-a-half times higher than the age group’s national rate. While many children are being incorrectly taught that Columbus discovered America in school, 49 percent of Native American 12th grade students did not graduate in 2010 due largely to poor federal funding.
Outside of reservation life, hundreds of colleges, universities and professional football teams portray an entire race as mascots. Traditional headdresses are worn as costume props. Racial profiling has led to massive incarceration rates. Even Albion College has played a derogatory role. From 1844 to 1851, an Indian Department converted over 30 Native Americans to Christianity and taught them to become preachers.
All of these ailments and hardships catalyzed with Columbus and his crew. We now celebrate the man with shopping sales and coupons.
We must celebrate something else. Other cities, counties and nations already have. We can celebrate Indigenous People’s Day instead. We can appreciate indigenous culture and diversity; bring to light the long history of genocide and oppression and collectively organize to combat current injustices and hardships.
In 1977, Californian members of the International Conference of Discrimination Against Indigenous Populations in the Americas did not want the 1992 quincentennial anniversary of Columbus’ landing to be recreated, as was planned in the San Francisco Bay Area. Instead, they successfully advocated for the city of Berkeley, California, to celebrate what would later be known as Indigenous People’s Day.
Since, scores of other municipalities have followed suit, from Seattle and Minneapolis to local areas like Alpena, Traverse City and Washtenaw County. Just this past September, East Lansing joined the list.
Other countries in North America have been celebrating indigenous peoples’ culture, too. Costa Rica and Colombia – named after Columbus – will celebrate Día de la Raza (“Day of the Race”) on Oct. 12. Belize celebrates Pan-America Day. For the Bahamas, it’s National Heroes Day.
What can we do? If you are going home for fall break, check to see if there are any public celebrations put on by tribes or cities in your area. Look into the rich culture and troubling history of Native Americans in Michigan and continent-wide. Take time to appreciate art and poetry. Encourage your hometown to recognize Indigenous People’s Day every second Monday of October.
What can we do for Albion College? Let’s bring in guest speakers next year on this topic. Let’s push for a book by a Native American to be a Common Reading Experience. Let’s get the city of Albion to recognize the holiday. Let’s not celebrate a monster who spurred centuries of injustice, but humanity.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons