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Celebrating Columbus continues to be controversial

ASU scholar says federal holiday instituted in 1937 should be replaced with Indigenous Peoples Day

Statue of a man

October 07, 2018

Today millions of Americans are enjoying a day off work — a tip of the hat to Christopher Columbus, the man who history says discovered this country in 1492.

But many Native American scholars scoff at the idea of celebrating a federal holiday in honor of a man they believe was a savage, and they want the history books to be updated to reflect his atrocities and misdeeds.

Once such scholar is Leo Killsback, an Arizona State University assistant professor of American Indian studies and a citizen of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe. Killsback said Columbus’ legacy is based on “misinformation and outright lies.”

Man in ponytail and black jacket

Leo Killsback

ASU Now spoke to Killsback about this controversial holiday and his hopes that one day it might be replaced with a tribute to indigenous people.

Question: Most Americans recognize Christopher Columbus as the man who discovered America, but recently academics — most especially Native Americans — don’t necessarily subscribe to that theory. Why? 

Answer: Columbus did not “discover” a land that was already inhabited by millions of indigenous peoples and hundreds of indigenous nations. Historical facts prove that the legacy of Christopher Columbus is based on misinformation and outright lies. For instance, Columbus never landed on the mainland, which would become the United States of America. In 1492, he arrived at the Caribbean islands, yet he believed until his dying day that he landed in the East Indies, which are located halfway around the globe in Southeast Asia. His legacy has been a topic of contention for years among American Indian scholars, yet the legitimacy of Columbus’ “discovery” did not become a mainstream issue until the quincentennial of his 1492 voyage.

Q: Native Americans have stated that Columbus had great ill will toward indigenous people. What are some examples of this?

A: It has been well documented, even in Columbus’ diaries, that he and his men committed the most inhumane and grotesque atrocities against indigenous men, women and children. Columbus and his men met the Arawak people who were indigenous to the island that is now Haiti and the Dominican Republic. He enslaved them in mass numbers and forced them to mine for gold. The Arawak endured violent punishments and bodily dismemberment if they did not produce a certain amount of gold in a given time.

There are also numerous accounts of sexual violence and trafficking of indigenous women and the torture and murder of indigenous children. The Arawaks resisted but could not stop the onslaught of violence. The survivors who witnessed the end of their world either committed mass suicide or were sold into slavery. When Columbus landed on the island in 1492 there were approximately 250,000 natives; by 1550 there were only 500; by 1650 the entire population was annihilated. These facts and numbers are the definition of genocide.

Q: Given what you’ve just said, how can the general public become more enlightened?

A: I have observed that most folks do not know the true history of Columbus and therefore never felt the need to question why his legacy is celebrated. If the general public were to simply rely on facts, then they would find that celebrating Columbus Day is offensive, embarrassing and completely absurd. Although history cannot be changed, we most certainly can deconstruct outdated historical narratives and revise history using facts and incorporating indigenous perspectives. The general public may then find that celebrating Columbus as an American hero is inappropriate. Other than his legacy of genocide against indigenous peoples, here are some facts:

  • He did not land on the mainland of what is now the United States.
  • He was not an American; he was Italian.
  • He did not sail for America; he sailed for Spain.
  • He did not serve the interests of America; he served the interests of two monarchs: King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella.
  • The Americas are named after Amerigo Vespucci, who landed on the mainland in what is now South America.
  • Today the Bahamas, Haiti and the Dominican Republic, the islands that Columbus landed on, do not celebrate Columbus Day.
  • Today Columbus Day is one of 10 U.S. federal holidays and one of three holidays that celebrate individual persons: The other two are Americans George Washington and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Q: What are some of the topics you discuss in your courses about Columbus Day, and how can we move forward?

A: The idea that Columbus or any other European explorer could “discover” a new land was based on a legal document that completely stripped away the rights of indigenous peoples. In 1493, a year after Columbus’ first voyage, Pope Alexander VI issued the papal bull “Inter caetera,” which formally and legally proclaimed that any land that was not inhabited by Christians could be claimed by any Christian sovereign that “discovered” it. The “doctrine of discovery” thus became the legal mechanism to legitimize the extermination of indigenous people and the thievery of their lands.

From a modern perspective, it is completely insane to think that an entire race of people could lose their human rights simply because another race of people “discovered” them. Yet this irrational thinking is implied and reinforced when people celebrate Columbus’ supposed “discovery” of America. They are essentially celebrating the diminishment of indigenous peoples’ rights, declaring that American Indians, then and now, do not matter.

Numerous states, cities and universities across the country have joined the movement to celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day rather than Columbus Day. Given the large populations of American Indian and indigenous peoples in the United States, their land base and their contributions, it is practical and sensible to celebrate them, their histories, cultures and legacies. Indigenous Peoples Day is simply just more positive.

Top photo: Statue of Christopher Columbus. Courtesy of Pixabay

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