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Why Indigenous Peoples' Day?
Are We Erasing History?
I am a fourth generation Italian America. My great-grandparents came to the United States from Italy and Sicily just after the turn of the twentieth century. They came to America from poverty to build a new life and that they did. I am proud of my heritage and I have passed it along to my children.
Because of my background, one would think that I observe Columbus Day (as Christopher was from Genoa, Italy) and reject its replacement, Indigenous Peoples’ Day, but that is not the case. Some have said that to replace Columbus Day is to erase history, but I believe the opposite is the case. Indigenous Peoples’ Day is a recognition that there is much more to the story of America’s “discovery,” than Columbus accidently finding a new world looking for a better way to ship spices. As a Christian, whose Bible does not spare the faithful from the frailties and foibles of its central characters, so I believe the unsavory parts of American history should not be covered over or politely minimized.
Here is what we know about Christopher Columbus and the activity of his men after landing in the West Indies:
Columbus and the men under his command are well-documented for their mistreatment, persecution, and exploitation of the indigenous peoples they encountered in the Caribbean. Several key points highlight this:
Upon arriving in the Bahamas in 1492 and later exploring other parts of the Caribbean, Columbus and his men captured many indigenous people and sent them to Spain as slaves. He also established a forced labor system called encomienda, which essentially reduced the indigenous population to forced laborers on plantations and in mines. Under this system, many natives were worked to death, mistreated, or died from diseases brought by the Europeans.
Columbus committed numerous acts of violence against the indigenous peoples. There are reports of his men cutting off the hands of those who did not bring enough gold, using attack dogs against the locals, and committing other acts of brutality.
The indigenous population of the Caribbean declined precipitously in the decades following Columbus’s arrival. While many died from diseases introduced by the Europeans (to which they had no immunity), a significant portion of this decline can also be attributed to violence, mistreatment, and the harsh conditions of forced labor.
In his letters and journals, Columbus himself wrote about his intentions to subjugate the indigenous populations and exploit them for their labor and resources. His words provide direct evidence of his attitudes and actions towards the natives.
While Columbus’s voyages opened up new trade routes and had a huge impact on world history, they also set in motion a tragic sequence of events for the indigenous peoples of the Americas. It’s important to approach his legacy with a nuanced perspective, acknowledging both the significance of his discoveries and the devastating consequences they had for indigenous societies.
If we were willing to recognize the good and the bad and make Columbus Day a more sobering observance, we would not need Indigenous Peoples’ Day. However, since we are only willing to give a wink and a nod to the evil covering over (erasing?) that history in favor of a more idyllic view, we need Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
Indigenous Peoples’ Day is a holiday that celebrates and honors Native American peoples and commemorates their histories and cultures. That its celebration across the United States on the second Monday in October is the same day as Columbus Day is intentional, as an attempt to offer a more complete history of that time.
The movement to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day began in the latter half of the 20th century, as many people sought to recognize the negative impacts of European colonization on native populations as mentioned above—violence, disease, forced removal, and cultural erasure. Advocates argue that Columbus should not be recognized without also acknowledging the profound suffering and loss experienced by the indigenous peoples of the Americas as a result of European exploration and colonization.
Indigenous Peoples’ Day is an opportunity to learn about and celebrate the rich histories, cultures, and contributions of Native American tribes and indigenous communities throughout the Americas. Many states and cities have officially replaced Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day or recognize both holidays simultaneously.
Until Columbus Day can be redeemed from it idealized celebration, we need Indigenous Peoples’ Day. And this fourth generation Italian American will be observing the latter.
FOR FURTHER READING
“Christopher Columbus: The Untold Story,” https://secure.understandingprejudice.org/nativeiq/columbus.htm
Kyle Jaeger, “Christopher Columbus' Journal Will Make You Cringe,” https://archive.attn.com/stories/3571/christopher-columbus-journal-entries
Deondre Smiles, “Erasing Indigenous History, Then and Now,” https://origins.osu.edu/article/erasing-indigenous-history-then-and-now?language_content_entity=en
Rebecca Nagle, “The U.S. has spent more money erasing Native languages than saving them,” https://www.hcn.org/issues/51.21-22/indigenous-affairs-the-u-s-has-spent-more-money-erasing-native-languages-than-saving-them
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