The Truth about Christopher Columbus
For the past 80 years, since Columbus Day became a federal holiday in 1937, we have celebrated an explorer who engaged in enslavement, outright theft and the genocide of this hemisphere’s indigenous peoples.
In 1492, the Spanish sailor Christopher Columbus embarked on what he believed would be a pathway to riches in India. Landing on the shores of the Americas, Columbus did not think twice about what he believed were an inferior people who should be held as slaves, guides, even as dog food for their ongoing exploits. Consider these words from Columbus himself: “These people are very unskilled in arms . . . with 50 men they could all be subjected and made to do all that one wished.”
Doing as he wished, Columbus and his crew brought disease, stole precious resources and ultimately wiped out many indigenous island tribes, all in the name of claiming this side of the globe as the “new world.”
Columbus’ violent ventures served as only the beginning to future conquests of American Indians and the indigenous peoples of Central and South America. And yet, many Americans gladly attend parades throughout this country’s cities, wrongly praising the man for his truly wicked deeds.
Perhaps we do not have much to celebrate in this divided country other than sports figures and those who have bravely helped survivors of natural disasters and deadly attacks. But continuing to honor a man who brought such misery to American Indians only serves to hide the truth about how this country was formed.
On Columbus Day, this year on Oct. 14, it is important to remember this nation’s history of stealing Indian land and subjugating native people to reservations. In fact, the propensity for dehumanizing native people is ongoing. From proudly displaying degrading Indians as savage sports mascots, to exploiting Indian land for oil and other natural resources, you cannot convince me that the spirit of Christopher Columbus is no longer with us.
In recent years, there have been calls to unmask the false celebrity of Columbus. Indeed, some cities have denounced the holiday in favor of celebrating the contributions and sacrifices of indigenous peoples. Many tribal Indian governments remain open on Columbus Day as a form of protest.
But in all honesty, I am not sure how we should deal with the memory of Columbus. I believe we should remember the horrific truth about the man and his contributions to opening the doors to colonization. But I also believe we need to embrace the full truth about the terrible price my ancestors paid for the discovery of this “new world.”
This country remains in deep denial about its origins. I constantly hear from non-natives that we Indians need to just get over the past. My only reply is we are willing to move on but only until we as a unified people recognize the history of violence that was forced upon us.
It should not be threatening to our identity and future as Americans to stop the glorification of Christopher Columbus. American Indians and I am sure many other indigenous peoples, understand that we cannot undo the past. But neither can we continue to embrace fairy facades such as those about the exploiter who “sailed the ocean blue in 1492.”
Mark has been a correspondent for Indian Country Today, director of the Native American Journalists Association