What if “Columbus Day” was given the more accurate name “Celebrate Genocide Day”?

 

Today is “Columbus Day,’ a day that has been celebrated in various ways since at least 1792 and was declared a federal holiday by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1934. Currently, elementary schools around the nation combine the ‘holiday’ with learning units about Columbus and his “discovery.” The ways in which this portion of history is taught consists of a massive lie.

To start with, most history books claim Columbus “discovered” America. Well, forgive me  for asking, but when there are already anywhere form 10 to 45 million inhabitants living on a land mass, why does one conqueror’s greed induced voyage equal “discovery”? (Not to mention Columbus was lost and thought he was in Cuba when he first landed in the Caribbean and thought he was in India when he landed in North America.)

Teaching children Columbus “discovered” American obliterates the history of the indigenous people’s of this continent, it ignores the genocide that ensued, and it suggests that greed-driven imperialism is something to be celebrated.  It equates being a “hero” with being racist, violent, power-hungry, and arrogant. Woo-hoo.

Many websites offer teachers lesson plans to help kids “celebrate” the wonderful imperialist genocide Columbus’ “discovery” made possible. You can make tiny egg cups to represent the ships. Neat! You can make your own “discovery map.” (Do teachers encourage children to note the numbers of indigenous people massacred at each of Columbus’ ‘discoveries’?) Or, you can download pictures to color. (I wonder if these include native people’s being eaten alive by dogs – a popular way to ‘kill heathens’ by our hero.)

What if students learned a less glorified version of the not-so-great CC? Perhaps they might benefit from knowing some of the following:

  • One of CC’s earliest boasts after encountering the peaceful Arawaks was “With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.” (Zinn, 1)
  • Columbus was on his ‘discovery mission’ for gold and power – he was a power hungry zealot – so greedy in fact that he denied the promised yearly pensions to some of his crew and kept all profits for himself (Zinn, 3)
  • At the time of Columbus’ quest for gold, power, and conquest, indigenous peoples numbered in the multi-millions in the Americas (Zinn puts the number at 25 million; Gunn Allen notes the number was likely between 45 million and 20 million and further points out the US government cites the pre-contact number at 450,000)
  • Indigenous people’s were not “primitive” but advanced agriculturally and technologically with complex societal systems (so advanced in fact that the notion of democracy was stolen from the Iroquois)
  • The majority of indigenous people were not war-like but peaceful and did not have a concept of private ownership – hence the term “Indian Giver” – which became a pejorative rather than a compliment in our ownership crazy society
  • Many indigenous societies had far more advanced sharing of power between the sexes/genders – or, as Zinn puts it, “the European idea of male dominancy and female subordination in all things was conspicuously absent” (20)
  • “Contact” with Columbus and the conquerors that followed resulted not only in mass genocide, but continues to have negative effects on the small percentage of remaining indigenous peoples. For example, in the US, 25% of indigenous women and 10% of men have been sterilized without consent, infant mortality and unemployment are off the charts, and many existing tribes face extinction – hundreds of tribes have already become extinct in the last half century (Gunn Allen, 63)

These widely unknown facts (that are certainly not part of most public schools’ curriculum) are vitally important. As Zinn writes, “historian’s distortion is more than technical, it is ideological” (8). The distortions surrounding Columbus serve to bring about “the quiet acceptance of conquest and murder in the name of progress” (Zinn, 9) – an acceptance the USA is practicing today with its imperialist occupation of Iraq. This approach to history, in which the conquerors and corrupt governments shape both how people view the past and how they interpret the present, consists of a massive propagandist campaign to justify greed and power.

In terms of the way Columbus is historically represented, the whole “discovery narrative” not only problematically glorifies (and erases) genocide, but it also passes off lies as truth. Students are led to believe that Columbus came upon some vast and nearly wilderness, when in fact many places were as densely populated (and ‘civilized’) as areas of Europe (Zinn, 21). More prosaically, many people often mistakenly believe Columbus actually set foot on US soil (he never did). Moreover, US inhabitants are encouraged to lionize the man who not only precipitated mass murder of indigenous people’s, but also brought slavery across the Atlantic Ocean. Even ‘revisionist history’ fails to condemn Columbus, arguing he needs to be read in the context of his times. For example James W. Loewen, in Lies My Teacher Told Me, refers to him as “our first American hero.”  Well, if he is a hero, I certainly don’t want to be one of those, nor do I want to encourage my children, or my students, to look up to this version of heroism.

If you ask me, Columbus Day should be voided from the Federal Holiday calendar. Instead, perhaps we should institute an “Indigenous People’s Day” or a “Native American Day” to celebrate the true discovers of this continent. Columbus was an arrogant asshole, a murderous bigot, the cause of history’s largest and longest genocide. Who the hell wants to celebrate that?

Works cited:

Gunn Allen, Paula. “Angry Women are Building” in Reconstructing Gender. Ed. Estelle Disch. (Boston: McGraw Hill, 2006) 63-67.

Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States. (New York: Harper Collins, 2003).

For further reading:

Gunn Allen, Paula. The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminism in American Indian Traditions.

Jaimes, M. Annette. The State of Native America: Genocide, Colonization, and Resistance.

La Duke, Winona. The Winona la Duke Reader.

Smith, Andrea. Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide.

 

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37 thoughts on “What if “Columbus Day” was given the more accurate name “Celebrate Genocide Day”?”

  1. I think this is a good post. It’s good to know that people aren’t just excepting the holiday because “that’s the way it’s always been.” I agree, it’s wrong. Good for you to call it out.

  2. Amelia,
    Thanks much for the encouragement. The post got linked on some ultra-right wing blog and you can imagine how they view it… Yeah, ripping me to shreds. So, nice to hear from someone who sees that Columbus Day is indeed problematic.

  3. I learned that the Vikings first came to Canada in year 1000. My education wasn’t perfect but I don’t remember Canada’s “discovery” being taught as something to celebrate. Certain things were good for France or England but not good for everyone. I remember learning about the extinction of a tribe in Newfoundland. The one thing my education failed miserably at was bringing things back to now and this past century and showing that there is still racism, sexism, etc.

  4. You haven’t answered my main point in the post:

    “….since you say that you know European/American history (though I really doubt it), how do you know that the real version of history is that by PoC? How do you know that they’re not also lying? How can you believe that they are right?”

  5. First off all the whole native genocide is blown way out of proportion. 90% died of diseases and many died before they even saw a single white. Some explorers told of walking trough entire villages full of corpses.
    As for the old smallpox blankets story there is only one such action and that was during the French and Indian war. Just to remember here that infecting the enemy was a old and accepted war tactic (catapulting plague bodies)
    As for the Spaniards they were very cruel but they wouldn’t have killed that many natives; in the end dead Indians mine no gold. As for special European cruelty reserved for the natives you should read how they treated people during war in Europe.

  6. Where are your sources as to this 90% of indigenous people that died from diseases that were in no way connected to European “explorers”? Not only does this seem wholly improbable, but indicates a tacit belief that whatever these explorers said must surely have been the case. If the notion of these explorers contributing to the deaths of so many is horrifying to you,a modern reader, what makes you think that such occurences would not have been similarly horrifying to their contemporaries–thus motivating a desire to produce an image of indigenous people as “they were like that when we got there”?

  7. Lyndsay,
    Thanks for the comment. Your comment that “Certain things were good for France or England but not good for everyone” allies to Zinn’s point that history is generally written by the conquerors/ruling elite. In terms of learning about recent history, I agree that mainstream education fails miserably in this area. In highschool, we finally got to the 20th century in senior year and then rushed through it (and only up to mid-century). I never learned anything, for example, about the Vietnam War!

    Joana,
    I find the racist undertone of your question very problematic. However, I am not only referring to “Poc History.” My main source for the post is Howard Zinn. And, the post actually already answers this question — history is generally a STORY that puts the conquerors/elite in a good light.

    As for ‘objectifiable truth,’ well, that is a philosophical argument in and of itself. But, in short, I am more likely to believe the stories of those that were disenfranchised/oppressed historically — it links to the idea of privilege. When you are very privileged, you often do not see your own privilege and realize your complicity with oppressing others. When you are at the front of the line or the top of the ladder, you don’t necessarily see all those you have stepped on to get there…

    Zane,
    Your sources? You can note I cite mine…

    Ophelia,
    Great points. Your clarifying history as a story to justify certan ideologies is spot on. Thanks for the comment!

  8. Professor, you’re so right. Columbus “discovered” this land, only in the sense that he discovered it for European opportunists and imperialists. I was fortunate to have lived in the city of Berkeley, CA for many years, where the holiday is called Indigenous Peoples Day, and it is a day when city-wide, we celebrate the history of the Native people of our land. Opponents of your argument are simply brainwashed by the Eurocentric American education system, and are afraid of the truth, afraid to admit to their ignorance, and possibly to their own ancestors’ greed and self-righteousness.

  9. I meant to say, “celebrate the cultures of the Native people,” not “history.” Their tragic history is certainly not one to “celebrate.”

  10. There’s nothing racist about my post, but of course that you’ll find racism in everything if you look for it, especially since you know that your statements are wrong.

    According to you, the whole American history should be changed based on a few articles. I’m sure that I can find a thousand times more articles to support my point of view that you can to support yours.

    Also, you insist that American history be changed in favor of PoC’s perspectives so that Whiteness vanishes (that’s directly from your post).

    Nevertheless, if you insist that students learn that Columbus was a murderer, we should also learn about the Mongolian, Ottoman and North African invasions of Europe (among many others).

    Perhaps we should learn about the Turkish invadors who stole European women, impregnated them, and used their children for the army to fight the Europeans.

    We should also learn about the Native habit of giving babies as peace offers to the Gods.

    We should also learn about the genocide of White Africans in the hands of Black Africans.

    We should also learn about the Muslims who invaded Africa and the Middle East, and basically murdered or converted anyone there. This led to the transformation of many countries, such as Egypt, Syria and Lebanon. Did you know that those countries used to be majority Christian but because of the genocide, Christians account for the minority (as in less than 10%)?

    As well, how about we learn about the current plight of Middle Eastern Christians in the hands of Muslims?

    Do I have to provide more examples?

  11. I am sorry if my above post is offensive to you; I reread it and I think it comes off on the wrong note (again, sorry).

    However, what I was trying to say is that this mentality that you and others have “Europeans are only brutal murderers and PoC have always been victims” is not right. If Europeans have been in the past murderers, so have PoC and this is obvious from reading history. Therefore, everybody is at fault, not just Europeans.

  12. CulturePress,
    Thanks for reading and commenting. Indigenous Peoples Day — what a great concept! Go Berkeley! I think your point about the American-centric and Eurocentric version of history is key. And, the immersion in this type of history is often so extensive that anything outside of this version is seen as crazy, hostile, etc.

    Joana,

    Thank you for your follow up comment.

    I agree with you that history has been full of atrocities — and certainly not only at the hands of Europeans. One of the things I like about Zinn’s work (and it is encyclopedic in its coverage) is that he makes a very convincing argument that much of history is told from the standpoint of the ‘winners’ and that disenfranchised peoples are often silenced in historical accounts. Not all ‘winners’ have been white or European, certainly, and atrocities have been and still are committed by people of all different religions, ethnicity, cultures, etc. However, usually those with the most power and wealth in any given society get their version of history perceived as the ‘real history.’ Thus, we know the English view of the British Empire/Uk rather than the Irish/Welsh/Scottish view, for example.

  13. Thanks for a very informative and corrective post on this, professor! (and your patience with some commenters is impressive)

    I would just underline your point that it’s not that whites/Europeans have been the only bad actors out there. It’s more that the story they’ve imposed, on their children and on others, is a false and falsely self-aggrandizing one, a pack of hypocritical lies. Seems to me that you’re mostly just trying to get America to live up to its own ideals. And since those stated ideals are so lofty, and such a supposed example to others, good Americans are responsible for pushing their country to live up to them.

    By the way, as a sort of sidelight on this “holiday,” isn’t it kind of weird how Italian Americans glommed onto Columbus Day as an Italian American holiday? Okay, the Big C was Italian, but he was working for the queen of Spain, as a forerunner for Spanish conquest! I blogged about that, if anyone’s interested. And come to think of it, why are some whites so interested in upholding a holiday, and a part of American history, that’s actually all about Italians and Hispanics?

  14. Macon D,
    Well, I am very rarely complimented for being patient, so thanks! And thanks for adding the link to your great post — I thoroughly enjoyed it.

    Interesting point about “trying to get America to live up to its own ideals” — I had never thought of it this way.

    I do think the Columbus as Italian is a strange twist — one teacher’s website I saw encouraged an “eat Italian” approach as part of their celebrate genocide (ooops, I mean Columbus) unit!

  15. This is by far not just an issue with Columbus Day. I’d be hard-pressed to find a history class that doesn’t paint the United States as the innocent fighter in all wars, for instance. I don’t see how anyone can argue the fact that a person did not discover a land already populated with other people! Why they don’t count is a matter for debate, however.

  16. WOW, what a troll infestation…I simply do not understand how it is possible to deny the history of suffering of indigenous peoples in favor of maintaining privilege. This kind of willful ignorance is disgusting and simply not worthy of debate. You privilege maintainers or WPD really need to get in touch with your fear. I say fear rather than anger because it is more than obvious to POC that you fear retribution.

  17. Hello,

    I just want to say that I always enjoy reading your blogs. Not only are you inciteful but you also back up your thoughts with excellent citations and references.

    I agree with your take on Columbus Day. I am an enrolled member of the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa, Minnesota. (I guess I am a direct decendant of the 10% that did not die from all the diseases that killed so many native people before the “first contact” with non native people. I should be grateful that we were saved from damnation and physically, emotionally beaten not to mention sexually abused into being “civilized”. – a bad attempt at sarcasm.)

    Over the years we – I say we as a small majority of the Native community where I live – have learned not to get upset over misunderstanding of American History. The topic of teaching the entire CC history has been a struggle many people have and are fighting to have implimented into all school curriculums. The main argument is, “To teach both the negative and positive sides to the Columbus Day holiday”. I know that teaching young children of genocide and early germ/viral warfare (the small pox – blanket) is not a good idea but slowly increase the information as they grow older.

    I’m going to stop here… This is a topic that can be discussed and debated for years. Thank you for sharing.

    Weez

    If you are interested in reading more… this website has some interesting information. http://www.kporterfield.com/aicttw/articles/boardingschool.html
    Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee
    http://www.hbo.com/films/burymyheart/

    The Education of Little Tree
    You can find the book most places and the movie adaptation is wonderful.

  18. Smirking Cat,
    I totally agree! Yes, I had a real wake up call when studying US history as a foreign exchange student in England. This taught me how truly biased history is — that, in fact, as the word indicates, it is HIS STORY — who the “his” is varies as does how the “story” is told…
    Thanks for reading!

    Queer Unity,
    Your welcome!

    Eyecuweez,

    Thanks for the compliments! I am honored.

    That “should be grateful” stance is so problematic. Yeah, you should be thanking that big white dude in the sky that you are no longer a heathen savage. And all the perks that came with civilization are SO great — enforced sterilization, separation of family, enforced boarding school, enforced English language, stealing of land/culture… and the massive environmental devastation of progress is so cool… Plus, now you can buy all those neato “Indian” trinkets in Las Vegas gift shops! Ugh…

    In regards to what we teach children, I think children can handle a lot more than we give them credit for. And, mainstream curriculum already teaches them so much problematic hate/nationalism/patriotism/bigotry, that saying “genocide” is too much for young ears is preposterous. So, we can teach about 9/11 and “those evil terrorists” (as many schools do) but not Native Americans? Preposterous!

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and for the recommendations — I hadn’t heard the Little Tree film was good. I will have to check that out.

    Renee,
    I think you are right — privilege denial plays a huge role in the negative reactions to posts such as these. Sometimes I think that debating is useless, yet other times I have hope that even those who tenaciously live inside their privilege bubbles might change — after all, bubbles can be burst.
    I agree that fear is definitely a factor – but it also seems as if often fear and anger co-exist and in a sense fuel one another.

  19. Actually, these things ARE taught in schools. I went to elementary school in Seattle (early 90s), middle school in Philadelphia, and high school in Portland, and the curriculum of all 3 of these schools rather labored to point that, while the founding of America was a big step forward, the Indians were here first and didn’t deserve what happened to them.

    The points made in your post are voiced loudly and often in the mainstream. Which is good, of course.

  20. Genocide days???? as long as I can get of work that would be great!!! and for the love of (patriarchal God) stop using Zinn as your only historical source.

    Back to genocide: let’s see: there are biblical genocide days, the Assyrians/Hittites did a few too, then there are the Muslim (Arabs) who organized a few as well. Musn’t forget the Chinese, Africa and Cambodia as well as Russia and nazi Germany….But let’s not forget about the Americas. Ever wonder how the Toltexs, Incas and Aztecs became so powerful? yep, they had their own systems of genocide, patriarchy and colonialism. Ever woner why the Spanish managed to crush the Incas??? they got help-not from the US Army- but from other S.American tribal groups who hated the power of the Incas. So I suggest we have a few days of for the sacrificial victims of the Aztecs.
    Now our dear friends the Iriquois-those of the vaunted democracy-were not as violent though for a period of time (1680-1730) they did a mighty fine geno job on the Hurons. Feminist historians {LOVE} to talk about the matriarchal Iriquois..hmmm…men: hunt, fish fight…women: get/raise children, clean game, take down tent, gather firewood, get water, gather corn, start the fire, cook the food, maybe sex in evening- (UGH)! Oh, yes, now and then women assisted men in torturing captives-those who passed were adopted-the flunkies were killed.
    And why did the Iriquois begin their semi-democratic confederation? because they were tired of killing each other!!!! There is no connection between their concept of a well run society with that of a European Democracy. In spite of the fact that Jefferson respected the American Indian he stated that: “the Indian is not capable of being a citizen of a democracy he lives by his own rules -which change day by day- and he (you will love this) treats his women like slaves.” This is from the book Jefferson’s Empire.

    Anyway I hope to have more vacation days!!!

  21. Opponents of your argument are simply brainwashed by the Eurocentric American education system, and are afraid of the truth, afraid to admit to their ignorance, and possibly to their own ancestors’ greed and self-righteousness.

    Proof please?????

  22. Columbus was an arrogant asshole, a murderous bigot, the cause of history’s largest and longest genocide. Who the hell wants to celebrate that.

    I agree I would much rather prefer to celebrate belly dancing week or thong thursday…..unfortunately genocide appears to be alot more exciting. I wonder if we should also have Aztec heart awareness week those guys would have made great cardiologists: “sir, I believe you have a minor infarcation of your left ventricle.”

  23. “I simply do not understand how it is possible to deny the history of suffering of indigenous peoples in favor of maintaining privilege” by Renee!

    Yep, the indidenous people suffered alot but there is no connection with privilege. I’m tired of hearing this nonsense, of how I as a white person, am somehow complicit with what happened to indigenous or other peoples. Using your analogy todays Jews are responsible for the death of Christ. So Renee tell me what my role was during the Trail of Tears and I will tell you what role you played during Mao’s great purge!

  24. “Keep posting. I’ll keep reading”

    Good-why not read a few books about the Aztecs/the Mexica, the Incas and the Comanches.
    The Mexica practiced human sacrifice on a regular basis as killings were scheduled four times a year during festivals. In the community of Tenochtitlan children were offered up for sacrifice to the god of agricultural fertility. And, in N.America the Hurons, Pawnees and other groups practiced sacrifice and cannibalism.
    Christopher Columbus didn’t bring violence to the New World-it was alrady here!

  25. I like this. I am a Native American myself and I am currently writing a persuasive speech about how Columbus should not be honored with a holiday. Actually, from what one of my high school teachers have told me and from what I have read in a textbook, Columbus asked that blankets infested with smallpox be brought to use for the Natives. He also enslaved them, murdered them, raped them, tortured them. I would call it a holocaust, but both genocide and holocaust work well for the description of the inhumanity Columbus has caused. I have been wanting to know why there is no holiday honoring indigenous people, after all, we are the ones who gave up our land to make white people happy.

    Anyway. I thought this was pretty rad that someone else also thinks this way.

    Keep it up!

  26. Rachel,
    Well (blushing), thanks!!!

    Alexa,
    So glad you found the blog! Wish I could hear your persuasive speech. Good luck with it!!!

  27. Read your history books fools (the unbiased ones), Christopher Colombus and his troops started and led what was arguably the largest genocide in history, with somewhere between 10M and 70M people killed through genocide, intentional germ warfare (i.e. the intentional infection and spreak with smallpox), the most terrible massacres and the driving out of a people from their lands into the hills – where the survivors perished.

    Exact figures are hard to determine (as not suprisingly a census was hardly firstmost on his mind), but CC and his brutal spanish legacy is remembered none to fondly throughout Latin Americia to this day (and yes, even the more democratic and western aligned countries like Columbia) where the eventual driving out of the indescribably brutal Spanish is celibrated to this day.

    I have no doubt he ‘discovered’ Americia for the west, but to pretend any more than that would be akin to celibrating hitler’s drive through europe as a good thing for western technological developement, volkswagen and the developement of rocket-technology, jet engines…and mass extermination…

    CC was even by the standards of his time a brutal, unethical and ruthless individual who begun and enacted some of the worst crimes in history.

    PS And no, I am not some left-wing pinko, I am a right-wing UK citizen (who supports the US) and married to a Colombian – and Ive visited many of these countries, read their bloody history and know the true legacy of this ‘great man’…!

    Celibrate some other individual please!!

    Matt

  28. PS Not suprisingly the Spanish are not remembered too well throughout their colonies to this day…

    (Well the English certainly are’nt either, although to a somewhat lesser extent…). I also grew up in Australia, where the English history there is a pretty bloody affair, although nothing on the scale of the ‘conquest of the americias’..

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