A Christopher Columbus statue was splashed with red paint earlier this year in Buffalo, New York. Statues of Columbus, along with the federal holiday, Columbus Day, have been criticized for celebrating a symbol of violence against Indigenous peoples. — photo via the Buffalo Police Department
By Stephen Warren and Adriana Peterson
Manny Alfano of the Italian American One Voice Coalition believes that critics of Columbus Day “are judging a 15th century explorer by 21st century standards.” From a historical perspective, he has a point. Christopher Columbus, the Genoese explorer, was born in 1451, well before Italy became a nation and at a time when his Spanish benefactors, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, were engaged in a centuries-long struggle for the Iberian Peninsula, the so-called Reconquista. Religious wars between Catholics and Muslims, combined with widespread anti-Semitism, meant that religious bigotry was commonplace.
In 1492, soon after he arrived on the island he named Hispaniola, Columbus kidnapped and enslaved more than a thousand Indians. In letters to his Spanish benefactors, Columbus emphasized that the Taíno “were well built, with very handsome bodies.” He predicted that they would be easy to conquer and enslave, because “they do not carry arms or know them.” When the Taíno did fight back, Columbus used terror to subdue them. Columbus also brutalized his own people; he once bragged about cutting off the tongue of a woman who had the audacity to remind him that his parents had been humble weavers. The sad reality behind all of these facts is that Columbus was very much a reflection of his time and place. In fact, Hernán Cortés deployed similar tactics in his conquest of the Aztec Empire. A century later, English colonizers such as Samuel Argall used kidnapping, terror and enslavement to conquer Pocahontas’ people, the Powhatan. The devastation wrought by colonization, from the 15th century onward, is nearly impossible to comprehend.
In 1989, when he poured buckets of fake blood on a statue of Columbus in Denver, Colorado, the American Indian Movement leader, the late Russell Means, had these realities in mind. Since 1989, Native peoples have followed Means’ lead, demanding that Columbus Day be replaced by a day of remembrance for those who perished because of European colonization. Named Indigenous Peoples’ Day, leaders of this movement ask that we remember the 90 percent of the Indigenous peoples in the Western Hemisphere who died as a result of exploration. Within three decades of Columbus’ arrival, a Taíno population estimated at 3 million people had been reduced to 50,000. Slavery, warfare and smallpox destroyed a people and a culture that had been around for millennia. On the North American mainland, populations ranging from 10 to 15 million people had been reduced to approximately 800,000 by the dawn of the 19th century.
As a non-Native professor of American Indian history, I believe that Columbus Day should be replaced so that Americans might finally reckon with their tragic past. Indigenous Peoples’ Day is not an affront to Italian Americans. Rather, it is part of an effort to create a useable past. The vast majority of monuments to Columbus were erected in the first decades of the 20th century in response to intensive lobbying efforts by Italian immigrants. At the same time, the United States commitment to cultural genocide, through boarding schools, the suppression of Native American religions and other limits on tribal sovereignty were in full swing. Richard Henry Pratt, the headmaster of the nation’s flagship boarding school, Carlisle Academy, intoned that Americans must “kill the Indian” if they hoped to “save the man.”
— Stephen Warren
As a Native student at the University of Iowa, I understand Russell Means’ anger. Growing up, I listened to the stories of my people — the Navajo and Menominee — stories that emphasized the colonization of our lands and the relocation of my people. Celebrating Columbus Day means that the pain and suffering of my people can be easily overlooked. My relatives have served in the U.S. military for generations, from World War I to the present day. Replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day does not diminish military veterans’ service. Rather, Indigenous Peoples’ Day is both a remembrance and a celebration of the indigenous people who went through centuries of suffering and oppression only to have their histories erased by celebrating Christopher Columbus.
— Adriana Peterson
That 567 federally-recognized tribes remain in the United States today is a testament to Native people’s resilience. Indigenous Peoples’ Day is a small step toward a new understanding of American history, one predicated on the acceptance of difference in all its forms. The beliefs and values of a 15th century conquistador should be cast aside. Let’s leave the violence, terror and bigotry that was commonplace in Columbus’ time behind us. Embracing Indigenous People’s Day is a necessary step toward the acknowledgment of our tragic past, and our shared commitment to a better future. Supporting Indigenous Peoples’ Day here at the University of Iowa will let the Native community on campus know that their voices are being heard by their non-Native allies.
Adriana Peterson (Navajo and Menominee) is a student at the University of Iowa.
Stephen Warren is an associate professor of history and American studies.