Social Issues

the way it’s always been is a sucky reason for it to always be that way

For the record, “Columbus Day” wasn’t an officially recognized holiday until 1906, when it became a recognized holiday in Colorado– and it took another thirty years before it was a federal holiday. So it’s not something with a deeply embedded cultural meaning, but America as far as countries go is pretty brand-spankin’ new, so it’s not like ANY of our traditions are old.

However, I think celebrating Columbus Day is wrong. Many historical figures have complicated stories, filled with moments of good and bad, righteous and evil, things worth celebrating and things worth critiquing. Even Mahatma Ghandi had his problems.

Christopher Columbus is not one of those people. Columbus was wholly and totally and irredeemably evil. He did nothing good and nothing worth celebrating. He did not discover America — and it could be argued that not even Leif Erikson was the first— the only thing he did was convince a powerful monarch to give him a lot of ships, men, and weapons so he could go enslave an entire population and steal everything they had.

Anyway, I’ve had a migraine for three days that I’m just now coming onto the other side of, so I’m not going to has that all out. But, one of the reasons why I’m an intersectional feminist is because it’s important to recognize the stories of everyone who has been or still is oppressed, and First Nation people are absolutely in that group in pretty much every conceivable way.

It particularly concerns me because Native American women are at extreme risks when it comes to sexual violence. 1 in 3 Native American women have either been raped or have experienced attempted rape– compared to the 1 in 5 number for the general population of women, and potentially 88% of those assaults will be committed by non-Native Americans. That is a horrifying, frightening reality, and it is extremely important to recognize how the systematic dehumanization of First Nation people plays a significant part in that. I live around a lot of DC football fans, and when I occasionally point out how incredibly racist their team name is, they get mad at me.

Celebrating Columbus Day is just another way that we ignore, dismiss, and forget the atrocities we have put them through– and continue, every day, to put them through.

I wanted to leave you with some further reading on the subject, especially because today’s post is so short.

4 Ways to Celebrate Columbus Day (without Celebrating Columbus Day)” by Taté Walker, a Lakota.

A very helpful comic from The Oatmeal. (update: it is important to note that I do not agree with the proposed “solution” at the end of this piece, mostly because it ignores the origins of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.)

Photo by Claus Rebler
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  • Brett

    What’s bizarre about Columbus Day is that even in his own life-time, he was considered exceptionally awful and brutal. His officers and subordinates in the Caribbean hated him, and the Spanish Crown eventually recalled him and stripped him of the governorship even if they let him have one more voyage and some of his money and titles.

    Hell, his voyage only happened because he convinced Isabella & Ferdinand – over the objections of experts and scholars within the Spanish Court – that the globe was smaller than it was, and thus a voyage out in the Atlantic wouldn’t potentially be a suicidal trip into 15,000 miles of mostly open ocean.

    There’s absolutely no reason to celebrate his landing, even though it was quite historically significant (he didn’t “discover” America, but he started the Columbian Exchange).

  • You’re absolutely right, Samantha. And I hope you feel better soon.

  • Refer your friends to The Daily Show’s pitch perfect segment about the Washington football team.

  • Crazylikeafox

    I’m perfectly fine with an Idigenous People’s Day, and we can replace Columbus Day with something else, but we absolutely should not replace Columbus Day with Indigenous People’s Day. Columbus Day is a day to celebrate Italian heritage more than anything else, so that would just deprive an ethnic group of their day. What we SHOULD do is create an Indeginous People’s Day on another day, and rename Columbus Day after another important Italian figure

    • I don’t understand this, actually.

      This date was chosen for Columbus Day because that was when he arrived. In other places where it’s been observed, it’s been referred to as “Discovery of the Americas” day or something similar. It’s never been associated with “Italian heritage”– that really just feels like someone is pulling something out of their ass, I’m sorry.

      It makes perfect sense to replace “Let’s recognize a horrific monster for his enslavement and rape of a native population” with “let’s celebrate the oppressed and raped native population because DAMN they deserve it after all the shit we put them through.”

      • Crazylikeafox

        Italian heritage is exactly why it was set up here in Colorado. I’ve heard that from several history professors. Even if that wasn’t it’s origin, it’s certainly true now. If you look at parade floats, Italian heritage is mostly what you see. Like I said, create a day for American Indians, but don’t take away a day for Italians to do it. Just rename the day after another prominent Italian.

      • Gary Eddy

        Migraines suck. I get them and my wife gets severe ones. Hope you get better quickly. I know they can hang on for days.

    • Gram Pol

      I’m of Italian heritage. I prefer to celebrate my heritage another way, one that doesn’t link my mother’s family to that man, thanks.

      (Besides which, there is no empirical evidence that Columbus himself was Italian. His son claimed he was from Genoa in the biography, but there are no “Columbuses” in that region.)

      • I’m also of Italian heritage, and I too don’t want said heritage linked to that man. I’m also of German heritage and wouldn’t support a Hitler Appreciation Day to celebrate my German heritage (my Jewish heritage would also object to that).

        Sure, there are differences between those two men (one of them TRIED to obliterate an entire race of people, the other succeeded) but the point is the same.

  • Crystal

    I’m sorry about your migraine, Samantha. I do have some thoughts on the article but they must wait for now as I am very busy and must go back to work now.

  • Read the Oatmeal comic and I have to agree with the Bartolome Day idea. That is an European Explorer that I can genuinely see value in teaching about.

    I’m sorry you feel so bad and I hope you get to feeling better soon.

    • You’re referring to the slave owner Bartolome de las casas, yeah? The one who helped lead the Spanish invasion of Cuba? The one who helped establish the African slave trade with his writings? That Bartolome?

      Yes, he changed his mind later and campaigned against all that (while still partaking in the missionary work that provided the moral justification for genocide, slavery and empire and later becoming part of the court of the King of Spain, where he directly benefited from the proceeds of empire), but I don’t think that makes him worthy of having a day to himself — and I don’t see any value in naming a holiday after any European explorer, anyway.

      • The point of it all is that no human being is going to EVER be completely without flaws. Yes, the man ended up making a LOT of mistakes, but they were mistakes that he ultimately realized that he had made and tried to undo to the best of his ability. His life can be an object lesson in the idea that as long as you’re still alive, you can continue to try to become a *better* person than you are today.

        I’m just saying that that’s the sort of idea that I can get behind, ya know? That people can always try to be *better*, even if they aren’t perfect. That people can learn from their mistakes and making a mistake, even a horrible one, isn’t the end. A life is never destroyed past redemption, unless you stop *trying*.

  • mike

    Lets not go be getting Tribal on one another now, we’ve come too far for that.

  • I like Discovery Day, but don’t think Columbus day or whatever day you call it should be a national holiday. It’s a stupid reason to close the post office, banks, courts… whatever. We could do with fewer. Advertisers will still use it as a marketing gimmick.
    How about Amerigo Vespucci day? After all he was only a cartographer who realized the continents hadn’t been officially named yet and gave them his. Let’s celebrate why they’re called North and South America and he’s Italian who never harmed anyone that we know about.
    AD1492 is important because sailing technology made it possible for repeated oceanic transport. The early Norse colonies in Vinland and Greenland were abandoned in the Little Ice Age due to hazardous sailing conditions and crop failure.
    All the crimes against humanity Samantha cited apply to all empires built by conquest. As a retired history teacher it’s hard to judge someone by today’s standard, only by the standard of the time in which they lived. The fifteenth century was a pretty brutal time period in all of Europe. Columbus was a child of his time, stop blaming one man for the crimes of the Europeans who migrated here and if you’re of European ancestry blame the person in the mirror. If that sounds silly, “Hey I’m not the one who did those things,” then stop the blame game.

    • No, not all Empires. Pretty much just white ones.

      Even people of Columbus’ day thought what he did was heinous once they heard about it, so I’m not exactly judging him by only modern standards.

      I’m a white person, therefore benefit from the imperialism of white Empire-building, but it doesn’t follow that I’m not allowed to say “what Columbus did was fucked up.” In fact, because I’m a white person is a reason TO say that.

      • Tim

        I agree with you regarding Columbus being judged as heinous even by people in his own day. Not everyone is evil. But some people seem to be exceptionally evil. Could almost anyone become evil, given the right circumstances? I don’t know

        But I’m curious about your assertion that it’s just the “white” empires built through conquest that are guilty of the various crimes against humanity which Columbus committed (you mention enslaving an entire population and taking all their resources but Columbus was gulty of probably three other broad categories of crimes against humanity as well.) What all empires are you considering when you say that? And which ones do you count as being “white” empires? Are you counting the Persian, Greek and Mongol empires as white, or what’s your criteria on that?

        • Gary Eddy

          Zulus, Egyptians, Mongols, Chinese empires, native “American” against each other, and on and on. “white” people as you say do not hold a monopoly on evil against other nations

          • Tim

            Well, Zulu and Egyptian certainly aren’t white, although I’m not sure about Zulu conquest meeting the standard for “empire”. Arguably the Aztecs would be considered to have established an empire through conquest of other cultures, although I wouldn’t argue that any of the nations in North America were able to do that. But maybe that’s just me.

            My question was more about what we consider to be white imperialism. Were the Romans white? They were European. And the structure of the Roman empire had a lasting influence over all later European concepts of empire. Greek influence was huge on later European empires as well, and they could be considered white although perhaps not everyone would agree with that.

            I wasn’t trying to be contrary or contentious so much as I was simply curious as to what Samantha meant by white and by empire and by the thought that for the most part only white empires engaged in the kinds of behaviors that Columbus engaged in. Each empire has had it’s own particular characteristics, and empires built through conquest of dissimilar people groups have been better or worse to the indigenous peoples in the areas they conquered, valuing or appropriating or destroying the conquered cultures, enslaving the conquered peoples to various degrees, engaging in sexual warfare or not, granting legal status and protections to conquered peoples to some degree or not at all, committing genocide against certain specific groups, or not. I had never seen it hypothesized that the behaviors of the empires correlated with the skin colors of the conquering peoples and I was just curious about that. I’m not skeptical, I’m just saying it’s new to me and I’d like to understand the evidential basis.

          • Ancient conquest and post-Renaissance/post-Enlightenment European Colonization and Imperialism are, on their faces, not dissimilar. However, I think it’s telling that a federal holiday in America is “Columbus Day” and yet we’d probably be horrified at celebrating “Genghis Khan Day” or “Emperor Nero Day” or “Adolf Hitler Day.” That’s the difference. I think we’re largely capable of level-headedly discussing the atrocities Genghis Khan committed right alongside his arguably tolerant policies toward religion– but his religious tolerance isn’t used as a tool to dismiss, ignore, or forget the fact that he did some straight-up awful things.

            However, white/European colonization is consistently painted in our culture as having been a good thing. Colubus discovered the Americas! Isn’t that amazing? Wasn’t he just so brave? We brought modern (coughWesterncough) culture to Africa and Asia! Isn’t that wonderful?

            European Imperialism has consistently been the reason for some of the most nightmarish horrific tragedies ever perpetuated against humans, but we “celebrate” those things, and codify them into our holidays. We “conquer” the First Nation people and then use a pejorative for them that we created as our “national” sports team (DC football isn’t really a “national” anything, I’m aware, but they are based in our nation’s capital, which makes it worse).

            European expansion, I believe, is significantly different from earlier wars of conquest because it combined racism, religion, and superior technology (among other things) in a way our planet had never seen before. However, the differences between typical ancient warfare/conquest and post-Renaissance, post-Enlightenment Colonization are important, but they are vast and complicated, so I’ll direct you to these:

            Orientalism and Culture and Imperialism by Edward Said.
            How Europe Underdeveloped Africa by Walter Rodney
            Decolonizing Methodologies by Tuhiwai Smith
            Empire’s Workshop by Greg Grandin
            Exterminate all the Brutes by Sven Lindqvist
            The Imperial Cruise by James Bradley

          • Tim

            Hey thanks for taking the time to respond. I appreciate what you’re saying about two things: yes, it’s telling that we have a Columbus Day, but very probably a Genghis Khan Day wouldn’t go over so well. That’s completely true. Second, I get what you’re saying about significant overall differences between ancient conquest and post-Enlightenment colonization; I appreciate the resources you cited, and I agree that the pattern of post-Enlightenment colonization had elements that made it historically unique, although I think that’s different from just saying mainly only white empires did the specific horrible things Columbus did. Thanks again.

          • Tim

            Thanks again for the resource list. I realize the conversation has moved on, and this has been a bit off-topic, but after looking at the books you recommended, I have two responses.

            The first is that although all of these explore the various dimensions of post-Enlightenment colonialism, I think we’re so close to those events that it is hard for us to look at them in a balanced way. We can look at Rome’s conquest and see it as both good in some ways and bad in others, and, importantly, a continuing, hugely shaping factor for Europe and the Middle East during the many, many centuries that followed the fall of Rome. Modern European colonialism may parallel Roman conquest in many ways, but it is hard for us to judge it similarly. 75 years ago, US history textbooks mostly portrayed colonialism as praiseworthy. More recently the enormous brutality which accompanied it is being acknowledged, and the parameters of the continuing harmful impact on the colonized cultures are being investigated. But its closeness to us (these were our immediate ancestors who were involved) makes it personal and hard to view in the detached way that we might view Roman conquest.

            The second is that the majority of the books on your list seem appropriate to me. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend them to my kids with, “This is an important work. It shows a perspective worth considering. There are some ideas and events explained in here that you should be aware of, although not everyone who reads this will agree with all the conclusions that are drawn,”

            But there’s no way I could give my kids, “The Imperial Cruise,” without a lot of caveats for essentially the same reasons I wouldn’t endorse anything by David Barton for my kids. I wouldn’t want them exposed to something that purports to be historical and gets such a large number of really basic easily verified historical facts wrong. I don’t want them to think that poor scholarship is ok. And I don’t want them to think that I approve of turning history into a morality tale by focusing on events that make your point, ignoring events that might cast your point into some doubt, and just making up shit whenever you come to an impasse where there isn’t any record of the event you need to make your point. I don’t want them to develop a taste for propaganda even when it comes from “their” side.

  • I mean, the title says enough.

  • Crystal

    One thought I have is I remember the way A Beka portrayed it. They spoke positively of Columbus’s “discovery” of the New World, but negatively of his deeds towards the native peoples. As a fellow A Beka student, what do you think of that portrayal of history, Samantha? Is that fair to the native peoples? I wonder. I agree what he did was wrong (in fact, I think heinous would be a better word for it; they didn’t talk about it very much but it was mentioned), but his “discovery” of the New World had so many “benefits” to it – that’s the part I wonder about; how did it benefit the natives? The white Christians were the ones that benefited from the change more than anyone else, I think. But what do you think? I’d like to hear your feedback; it was never mentioned in your post.

    • I think her third paragraph addresses it.

      • Crystal

        I had a look; thank you! They did (and I’ve heard more) a list of reasons as long as your arm why it was so wonderful what he did (in regards to “discovery”). I might – not promising – but I might share the list so it can get rebutted, debated, thrashed around, and everything else. Don’t you think his atrocities are something that should be discussed more often? I mean, are white people the only ones allowed to have feelings on the subject?

        I have so many more thoughts but must get moving. I’ve got a good long day ahead of me.

        My sympathies to you, Samantha. I also was not feeling my best and shiniest when I first read your post.

  • Thank you Samantha, what you say is true for Canadians even though we don’t

  • Dont celebrate Columbus day. I agree with you that every ones story is important. Thanks Roland Legge