Every year, on the second Monday in October, the United States celebrates a federal holiday honoring a man who freely admitted committing atrocities against the native people of the Americas, including cutting off their hands, noses or ears to keep them in line, and sexually enslaving girls as young as nine, gifting them to his men.
“There are plenty of dealers who go about looking for girls,” Christopher Columbus wrote in his journal in 1500. “Those from nine to ten are now in demand.”
When Columbus arrived in the Bahamas (he never actually set foot in the contiguous United States) on Oct. 12, 1492, he noted the peaceful and hospitable nature of the native Arawaks, Lucayans and Taínos.
“They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features….They do not bear arms, and do not know them,” he wrote. “They would make fine servants….With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.”
Which is exactly what he did. Columbus enslaved the natives, setting them to work in his gold mines. Those who didn’t collect enough of the valuable dust had their hands chopped off and tied around their necks to send a message to their fellow workers.
More than four centuries later, the idea of a day to honor the explorer was conceived by the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic Fraternal organization that wanted a Catholic hero role model for its children. In 1937, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the law that made Columbus Day a federal holiday.
Today, most government employees have the day off. Banks, the bond market, and many schools are closed. Twenty-three states and the District of Columbia give their workers a paid holiday on Columbus Day, according the Council of State Governments.
However, over the years, the explorer’s controversial legacy has led many U.S. cities and states to temper the celebrations surrounding his namesake holiday.
In Columbus, Ohio, Columbus Day used to be a big event, but it’s been 16 years since the last parade.
New York City’s Columbus Day parade still draws around a million spectators and 35,000 marchers, but the event is now billed as an annual celebration of Italian-American Heritage. Many Italian-Americans see Columbus Day as celebration of their heritage.
A couple of weeks ago, the school board in Seattle, in Washington State, decided to have schools observe Indigenous Peoples’ Day on the same day as Columbus Day. Minneapolis, Minnesota and Berkeley, California, have also designated that day as Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Hawaii celebrates Discoverers’ Day, which pays tribute to the Polynesian discoverers of the nation’s 50th state.
Meanwhile, in South Dakota, Columbus Day has been known as Native American Day since 1990.
Mary Bordeaux, curator and director of Cultural Affairs for the Indian Museum of North America in South Dakota, would like to see the trend away from Columbus Day continue.
“It’s taking something that has traditionally been in America the celebration of what I see as the annihilation of the native population and trying to bring more awareness to the truth of our history in America,” she said. “By switching it to Indigenous Day or Discoverer’s Day, it starts a conversation about native people. It kind of opens up a dialogue.”
Bordeaux, a Native American who grew up on a reservation (an area of land managed by a Native American tribe under the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs), would like to see real action result from that discourse. High on her list is the rewriting of U.S. school textbooks that continue to glorify Columbus and discredit Native Americans.
“We still are the only minority in the United States that has to enroll, that has to get a number from the United States government to claim to be Native American,” Bordeaux said, “and so to continue celebrating and glorifying Christopher Columbus, we’re just continuing to support [the idea] that the people who were here before weren’t people, that they weren’t anything.”