A New and Already Outdated Holiday

It’s time to rethink everything you were taught about Christopher Columbus in elementary school.

Illustrator: Katie Heywood

That pervasive Christopher Columbus phrase about sailing the ocean blue in 1492 is ingrained in every American grade schooler. Throughout the United States, Columbus is thought of as a hero and is celebrated for his “accomplishments” every year on the second Monday of October. Columbus Day was declared a holiday in 1937 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt mainly due to intense lobbying from an Irish Catholic group called the Knights of Columbus. Since then, the holiday has been shrouded in controversy. Major protests to this holiday began in 1989 in Denver, Colorado. The American Indian Movement of Colorado wanted to expose the truth of Columbus and his journey to the “New World.” From there, several states and many cities have replaced Columbus Day with Indigenous People’s Day.

It took nearly 450 years for Columbus to obtain a federal holiday, which poses the imperative question of why that is. Along with the lobbyists, Washington Irving’s book, “A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus,” is also to blame for the exaggeration of Columbus’ accomplishments. In 1828, Irving travelled to Spain to read manuscripts about Columbus’ journey. However, the manuscripts were dry and mundane, which led Irving to embellish his biography. His work was a narrative of history, in which he combined fact and fiction.

Within the story, Irving described a dramatic encounter between Columbus and the Council at Salamanca, which contained professors, scholars, and leaders of the church, at which Columbus attempted to prove the theory that the earth is round. Thanks to Irving’s book, Columbus is recognized for revealing that the earth is round. However, most educated Europeans had already accepted this scientific discovery by 1492. Columbus simply discovered that it was possible to sail across the ocean and around the world.

Columbus Day is irrelevant and, despite being a somewhat recently acquired federal holiday, outdated. This holiday fails to recognize both the history of indigenous peoples and the malicious treatment from the Old World. The achievements that are accredited to Columbus are simply misinformed, such as: discovering North America, determining that the earth is round, and the spread of western civilization.

This holiday fails to recognize both the history of indigenous peoples and the malicious treatment from the Old World.

Columbus did not set foot on the North American mainland. He landed in present day Haiti, Dominican Republic, and Cuba. Nonetheless, there were already millions of people living in continental America, which means that it was already inhabited and therefore discovered. Although an exact population number is unknown, some historians estimate nearly ten million. A majority of these indigenous peoples were killed by smallpox, measles, and other Old World diseases.

Columbus did spread western civilization; however, the European customs he awarded the indigenous peoples in the New World were mainly disease, slavery, and genocide. If the diseases didn’t do enough harm, Columbus decided to enslave the indigenous people he encountered. Slaves were instructed to collect gold—Columbus’ main initiative—and if they did not reach a quota, they would lose a limb. His maltreatment and mutilation landed him in the courts of Spain, resulting in the removal of his governor title.

Columbus does not deserve to be celebrated, and in an effort to cease celebrating this holiday, multiple cities and states have begun to honor Indigenous People’s Day instead. Minneapolis joined this effort in 2014 and the text of resolution states that it was an effort “to better reflect the experiences of American Indian people and uplift our country’s Indigenous roots, history, and contributions.”