Growing up, we are taught that the first person to discover the Americas was an Italian gentleman by the name of Christopher Columbus. We are often presented with the song “Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492” and become perfectly indoctrinated Americans. The myth surrounding the “discovery” of our continent is a tactic by the government to keep citizens from thinking too deeply or critically about the real story of Columbus, and the true history of the “foundation” of our country, which involves enslavement and widespread genocidal violence.
The true founders of the United States were the indigenous people native to this land — not Native Americans, since “American” is a term imposed upon them by the white settlers and colonizers. The cultural practices and beliefs of these indigenous populations were rich and diverse, ranging from the Iroquois peoples of the Northeast to the Aztecs living in modern-day Mexico. The world as native people knew it was significantly altered once European contact was made. Disease ravaged, killing an estimated 95 percent of those living in North and South America.
Once Columbus set foot in the New World, he ordered the enslavement of the Taino peoples he came across and forced them to work in the unbearable conditions of mines. Plantation slavery, called the encomienda system, was put in place by Spanish colonists shortly after the first landing. Columbus’ expedition to the Americas was the precipitating event for the decimation of the native peoples he encountered.
Columbus Day was made a national holiday in 1937 by the U.S. government, mainly due to intense pressure from a Catholic group that saw it as an opportunity to celebrate Italian-American heritage. For many Italian Americans, it was a day to commemorate their identity. I believe that this is a shame since Italian Americans have so many other figures that can be used to represent their achievements and accomplishments as a community, and Columbus is certainly the wrong choice.
Many states have made adjustments to this holiday’s name already, including Alaska, Hawaii, Oregon and South Dakota. The governments in these states have decided to use the much more appropriate and respectful title of “Indigenous Peoples Day,” and choose instead to embrace and honor indigenous culture — so much of which has been taken away and pushed out by white settlers, a group of which Columbus was a founding member. Progressive cities such as Los Angeles, Denver and Phoenix, with significant native populations as opposed to other U.S. cities, have also switched the name of the day.
I would like to see New York City, set an example by shifting the thinking about the origins of our nation to understanding that Columbus is not a figure worthy of celebration, but one to be disgusted by and denounce the actions of. He paved the way for future conquistadors to come and dismantle the culture of natives, such as Francisco Pizzaro, who conquered the Inca Empire in South America, and Hernando Cortes, who pillaged and destroyed Aztec settlements in Mexico. Columbus himself wasn’t responsible for all of the suffering native peoples endured, but he symbolized the beginning of the end for the people that first settled the land we now know as the Americas.
I think that all millennials and college students have the obligation to stand up for injustice and attempt to right the wrongs our ancestors and previous generations have created, or, at the very least, acknowledge the historical background of problems that continue to permeate our society today. Let us be the generation that refuses to commemorate a horrible man who represents the genocide of the native people of our country. Let us turn the tide and demand the holiday we celebrate at the beginning of October to honor those who lived in this land for centuries before we ever arrived, and those who endured massive suffering at the hands of European conquerors, and yet still survive to this day. We must demand the renaming of Columbus Day.
Sam Backner is an undeclared freshman.