We’ve all heard the story. We’ve all heard the rhymes.
In Fourteen Hundred and Ninety Two,
Columbus Sailed the Ocean Blue.
Perhaps, though, we should consider what ought to be the next couplet.
By Fifteen Hundred and Zero Five,
Columbus had committed Genocide.
So often, we have heard Columbus Day described as a harmless holiday that simply celebrates the man who “discovered” the Americas. The holiday, though, is anything but harmless. The dominant white culture that maintains Columbus Day has a vested interest in maintaining the narrative of Columbus as a brave explorer who was committed to furthering the European understanding of the world. Perhaps, though, we ought to look to the man’s own words and to accounts of his journeys to better understand who he was and what he wanted in exploration (Taken from Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States):
Of the Arawak people on Hispanola, of whom estimates say there were nearly 2 million upon his arrival, Columbus wrote in his log, “They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance . . . They would make fine servants . . . With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want” (Zinn p. 1).
“As soon as I arrived in the Indies, on the first Island which I found, I took some of the natives by force in order that they might learn and might give me information of whatever there is in these parts” (Zinn p. 2).
The Indians “are so naive and so free with their possessions that no one who has not witnessed them would believe it. When you ask for something they have, they never say no. To the contrary, they offer to share with anyone” (Zinn p. 3). In exchange for ships and supplies for a second voyage, he offered the nobility of Spain “as much gold as they need . . . and as many slaves as they ask” (Zinn p. 4).
Columbus forced all Arawaks “fourteen years or older to collect a certain amount of gold every three months. When they brought it, they were given copper tokens to hang around their necks. Indians found without a copper token had their hands cut off and bled to death” (Zinn p. 4).
“In two years, through genocide, murder, mutilation, or suicide, half of the 250,000 Indians on Haiti were dead . . . By the year 1515, there were perhaps fifty thousand Indians left. By 1550, there were five hundred. A report of the year 1650 shows none of the original Arawaks or their descendants left on the island” (Zinn p. 5).
The accounts of his brutality and the brutality of the Europeans he brought forth go on and on. Sadly, though, the effort to caste his legacy as one of bravery and glory rather than brutality, rape, and murder is no accident. Zinn describes the distortion as “more than technical, it is ideological” (p. 8). In writing this, I cannot help but think of Derrick Jensen’s poetic and biting indictment of racism, power, and oppression in The Culture of Make Believe. The essential message of his book is that those in power (read most often as those who are white and male) can only live with our privilege if we create a “culture of make believe,” whereby we invent imaginary narratives of the brutality of our past to justify the position of power and privilege which we enjoy today. Without such narratives, we could not justify our current system!
It is time, then, that we, particularly we who have benefited so much from the genocide that Columbus participated in and brought to this land, construct a counter-narrative, a narrative built not on make believe but on reality.
- Columbus is not someone to celebrate. He was a murderer, a rapist, and someone who actively participated in the genocide that eventually led to the deaths of 20 million indigenous.
- Columbus did not discover the Americas. To say he did is to only further make invisible the lives and cultures that he wanted to see as invisible and that he helped to destroy. There were millions of people living on this continent. How can a man “discover” such a place? Further, to imply in the word “discover” that Columbus was the first European to come to the Americas is just plain historically inaccurate.
- There is federal recognition through a government-sponsored holiday for (to beat a dead horse) the murderer and pillager, Christopher Columbus, but there is no federal recognition of the lives, culture, and genocide of the Native Peoples of this land. It’s the least the U.S. federal government could do considering the thousands of treaties broken (let alone the state-sponsored genocide).
Native and Indigenous Peoples have been calling for the end of this absurd “holiday” for some time, but as is so often the case, voices of color are marginalized and ignored. We must have a much louder chorus coming from both Native and Indigenous voices as well as allies from all cultures. It’s time we Reconsider Columbus Day.
Please join me in writing and calling our Senators and Representatives at the national level to follow the lead of states like South Dakota who have created an Indigenous People’s Day in the place of Columbus Day. You can find the contact information of your Senators here and your Representatives here. If you’re unsure of how to start such a conversation, you might consider using the following script:
On this federal holiday for Christopher Columbus, I want to encourage [Representative or Senator Name] to join in the national movement to end the federal recognition of Columbus Day. Christopher Columbus participated in and enabled the genocide of millions of indigenous peoples in the Americas, and as such, he does not deserve the esteemed place of having a federal holiday in his honor. Instead, I encourage you to introduce legislation that would provide federal recognition and a federal holiday to Indigenous Peoples’ culture, heritage, and to the Native genocide through an Indigenous People’s Day. I demand, then, that my representative stands on the side of justice rather than the side of a tradition that celebrates genocide.
Peace be the Journey.