Goodbye, Columbus: Holiday in Decline as Brutal Legacy Re-Evaluated

Guardian Web |

Over the weekend Donald Trump issued a proclamation declaring Monday 8 October as . Mentioned in the statement were the names of the Italian explorer Christopher Columbus’s three ships, well-known to schoolchildren throughout the country, his indomitable spirit of exploration, and the contributions of Italian Americans throughout United States history. Not mentioned were the words indigenous people or Native Americans.

A follow-up tweet on Monday followed the same tack, ignoring the indigenous peoples of the Americas, but praising Columbus’s “accomplishments as a navigator” (Columbus thought he had landed in Asia).

Christopher Columbus’s spirit of determination & adventure has provided inspiration to generations of Americans. On #ColumbusDay, we honor his remarkable accomplishments as a navigator, & celebrate his voyage into the unknown expanse of the Atlantic Ocean. https://t.co/Mg3dxRfPuNDonald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump)

While the inclusion or omission of indigenous people from such presidential proclamations has become a partisan issue – George W Bush did not, while Barack Obama and Bill Clinton both did – the observance of has declined around the country. For example, the city of Columbus, Ohio, the largest in the country named after the explorer, remains open for business today for the first time.

Unlike other states and cities, they have eschewed holiday proceedings there for budgetary reasons, but elsewhere the lionization of Columbus, a figure who critics say represents the country’s history of genocide, colonization and displacement of indigenous people, no longer sits right with many leaders and citizens.

“It was far more brutal than we had known,” Consuelo Varela, a historian and author of the book The Fall of Columbus has said. Even judging by the standards of the time Columbus’s treatment of indigenous people was violent and oppressive. “It was a frontier society, with terrible misery and injustice.”

This year, adding to the growing list of cities reluctant to celebrate that sort of history and choosing to instead observe Indigenous Peoples’ Day are such geographically and ideologically diverse areas as San Francisco, Cincinnati, Boise, South Fulton in Georgia and Mankato, Minnesota.

In recent years other cities, such as Austin, Los Angeles, Denver, Santa Fe, Portland, Oregon, St Paul, Seattle and dozens of others, have done the same. States who instead observe Indigenous Peoples’ or Native Americans’ Day include Alaska, Hawaii, Minnesota, Oregon, Vermont and South Dakota, who were the first to do so in 1990.

“Indigenous Peoples’ Day is part of a movement to recognize the atrocities committed against indigenous people while celebrating the history and contributions of Native and First Nations peoples to the community,” Boise’s mayor, David Bieter, said in a statement.

The choice to honor indigenous people on the overlapping federal holiday is not a coincidence, the mayor of Tacoma, Washington, Victoria Woodards, has said, while noting the city’s efforts to engender better relations with the area’s Puyallup Nation people.

“Clearly we picked the second Monday [of October] for a reason,” she said. “I guess it’s never too late, but it is late. I’m glad we’re doing it now.”

“Columbus Day is a relic of an outdated and oversimplified version of history,” Joe Curtatone, mayor of Somerville, Massachusetts, wrote of his decision to observe Indigenous Peoples’ Day last month.

The issue has become something of a sore spot for Italian Americans, who will often point out that they were not treated particularly well themselves when they first started arriving in the US. But Curtatone, like other city and state leaders, said that the brutal history evoked by recognizing Columbus is enough to overcome any sense of pride Italian Americans might feel.

“This issue is a lot like the Confederate flag for southerners. As an Italian American it feels good that there is an official holiday that is nominally about us. We are proud of our heritage. Yet the specifics of this holiday run so deep into human suffering that we need to shift our pride elsewhere,” he said.

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