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Why Are We Still Celebrating Columbus Day?

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Over 500 years ago, Columbus sailed the ocean blue and changed the course of history. Discover how the modern celebration of Columbus Day in the United States is making controversial waves.

A Brief History of Columbus Day

Starting with New York City's tricentennial celebration of Columbus' voyage, Columbus Day has been recognized in the United States since the late 18th century. President Benjamin Harrison implored his country to commemorate its 400th anniversary in 1892. Even the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago was dedicated to this theme and so named the World's Columbian Exposition.

In 1934, after extensive lobbying by the Knights of Columbus and Italian-American leaders such as Tammany Hall insider Generoso Pope, Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared Columbus Day a federal U.S. holiday. Since 1971, it's been observed on the second Monday in October.

Reasons Not to Celebrate

Over time, as attitudes and perspectives changed in American life, many people have come to question the merits of celebrating Columbus Day. There are several reasons why Columbus Day has become controversial.

Truth of Discovery

Normally, the notion of discovery means encountering a place or an idea for the very first time. Columbus ''discovered'' a set of continents where millions of indigenous Americans had been living for thousands of years. Rather than celebrating these existing cultures, the Columbus Day holiday focuses on an explorer who brought attention to them.

Historical Accuracy

While Christopher Columbus has often been declared the discoverer of America, this is not historically accurate. There's evidence that other explorers arrived on America's shores long before Columbus, including:

  • Zheng He, who may have sailed to America as early as 1418
  • Leif Erikson, who came to Vinland (believed to be modern-day Newfoundland) five centuries before Columbus' historic voyage
  • St. Brendan the Navigator, whose journey to the Americas would have predated Leif Erikson's by about 400 years

Saint Brendan the Navigator may have sailed to America about a thousand years before Columbus.

If we wish to commemorate the first non-American explorer to reach the Americas, perhaps one of these other individuals might be a more appropriate choice.

Shamefulness of the Legacy

Columbus' voyage led to horrific consequences for the native populations he discovered, including the colonization, exploitation, and enslavement of native peoples. By many accounts, Columbus himself cruelly mistreated the indigenous peoples he encountered. According to Columbus' own journal, he enslaved a half-dozen native people the first day he made land in the Americas. He governed the new territories ruthlessly, enacting inhumane policies and using barbaric tactics to keep a choke hold on the indigenous peoples.

Ravages of Disease

In addition to the unconscionable actions of Columbus and many of the explorers and traders who followed his path, Columbus' journey inadvertently led to the death of millions. European diseases such as smallpox, to which Native Americans had no immunity, were devastating.

Twenty years after Columbus arrived on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, a third of the population had died—many from smallpox. The epidemic continued with the arrival of additional explorers and traders who followed Columbus' lead; entire nations of people were wiped out.

There were recurrent smallpox epidemics. In total, millions were killed and many cultures died with them.

Reasons to Continue Celebrating

Celebrating a holiday that once seemed simply historic or patriotic is now fraught with complex ethical questions. Some might question why we continue to celebrate Columbus Day.

Columbus

Columbian Exchange

For better or for worse, Columbus' voyage shaped much of our world as we now know it. It opened up the Columbian Exchange between the Western and Eastern Hemispheres. Although the Columbian Exchange included the slave trade and other atrocities, it brought new foods (such as the tomato) and spices (like chili peppers) from the Americas to the rest of the world. Through the Columbian Exchange, horses were introduced to the Americas, where they became an integral part of the daily lives and cultures of many native peoples.

European-Style Politics

Some argue that Columbus' voyage brought European-style politics to the New World and helped to build the foundations of what later became the United States of America. Columbus Day is also seen as a landmark in American history: Columbus' voyage started the chain of events that led to the colonization of many parts of North America and eventually to the founding of the United States.

Alternative Celebrations

In light of Columbus Day controversies, some cities and states have decided upon alternative celebrations. These include:

  • Indigenous Peoples' Day, observed in place of Columbus Day in Seattle, WA, Minneapolis, MN, and Berkeley, CA, as well as parts of Alaska.
  • Native Americans' Day, celebrated in South Dakota, was spearheaded by Governor George Mickelson to improve relations between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples.
  • Discoverer's Day, observed annually in Hawaii on the second Monday in October, recognizes the Polynesian explorers who first settled the Hawaiian Islands. While it's not an official state holiday, many schools and businesses are closed on that day. There's been some recent political movement toward celebrating Indigenous Peoples' Day in Hawaii instead of either Columbus Day or Discoverer's Day.

This South Dakota statue is called Dignity, the same sentiment behind Native American Day.

Controversy and Transition

The celebration of Columbus Day in the United States appears to be in a transitional phase: While still recognized as a federal holiday, it has been eschewed in several cities and is only a paid holiday in 23 U.S. states.

Some would argue that Columbus Day is best left in the past, or perhaps replaced by an alternative holiday. But societal attitudes often change long before traditions, which is why Columbus Day is still a part of American life today.

By Michelle Baumgartner
October 2017

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