The first official Columbus Day celebration occurred in 1792 in New York to commemorate the tricentennial of the explorer’s landing. A century later, President Benjamin Harrison issued a proclamation “recommending to the people the observance in all their localities of the 400th anniversary of the discovery of America…” and describing Columbus as “the pioneer of progress and enlightenment.”
The celebration of this holiday is rooted in our country’s history and should continue. Yet since the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery there has been a push to change Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day. Three states voted for the change just this year.
Christopher Columbus contributed much to humanity. He was among the first to defy the conventional belief that the Earth was flat. He introduced the concept of reaching the east by going west. His discovery of the New World put North and South America on the map and paved the way for future explorers. His voyages facilitated immeasurable social, economic and political changes in the world.
Columbus Day is also of cultural significance to Italian Americans. The National Italian American Foundation says Columbus Day provides a “sense of dignity and self-worth in light of the hostility and discrimination many Italian immigrants, Italians Americans and Catholics (more broadly) faced.” By the time Columbus Day became an official national holiday in 1934, many Americans could still recall the mass lynching of 11 Italians in New Orleans just before the turn of the century.
The push to rename the holiday is rooted in the treatment of Native Americans by Columbus and later explorers. Interaction with Europeans displaced many, and led to the extinction of several tribes. Tragic as this may be, these actions are no different than clashes of civilization that had come before. The history of humanity is one of conquest and the same was true in North America.
When we celebrate a particular group, we do so because of the many contributions that culture has made, with the understanding that no society is free of sin or stains on their national character.
Judging Columbus through the eyes of 21st-century social justice advocates is unfair. Judging his actions in the context of the 15thcentury is more honest.
The notion that Native Americans were all living in peace before 1492 is a fanciful myth. Indigenous people were conquering and killing each other long before any European settler set foot on North America. Columbus spoke of this in his journal upon arriving in the New World: “I saw some with scars of wounds upon their bodies … that there came people from the other islands in the neighborhood who endeavored to make prisoners of them, and they defended themselves.”
Many tribes were brutal toward their fellow indigenous people. For example, the Chippewa tribe were enemies of the Sioux and forced them from their land in what is present-day Minnesota. The Sioux would massacre the Omaha, the Kiowa and the Pawnee, lusting after their resources and land.
Or consider the Aztecs, who brutally raped, pillaged and enslaved to build their empire. Historical accounts of the Aztecs reveal an “industry of human sacrifice unlike any other in the world.” Yet, some Indigenous People’s Day celebrations honor the Aztecs. If renaming Columbus Day is predicated on the sins of conquest, why are the sins of indigenous people ignored?
When we celebrate a particular group, we do so because of the many contributions that culture has made, with the understanding that no society is free of sin or stains on their national character. So we should, in fact, celebrate Native American culture with an Indigenous People’s Day. It would be culturally beneficial and worthwhile. Just don’t do it on Columbus Day.
We don’t have to disrespect one culture to celebrate another. Make room on the calendar for both.
Chris Tremoglie is a senior at the University of Pennsylvania.