Although not common in the UK,Columbus Day is celebrated in many states in the US. But should it be a celebration or a wake?
Why has the propaganda been so pro-Columbus?
Let us explore….
Columbus Day first became an official state holiday in Colorado in 1906, and became a federal holiday in the United States in 1937, though people have celebrated Columbus’ voyage since the colonial period. In 1792, New York City and other U.S. cities celebrated the 300th anniversary of his landing in the New World. President Benjamin Harrison called upon the people of the United States to celebrate Columbus Day on the 400th anniversary of the event. During the four hundredth anniversary in 1892, teachers, preachers, poets and politicians used Columbus Day rituals to teach ideals of patriotism. These patriotic rituals were framed around themes such as support for war, citizenship boundaries, the importance of loyalty to the nation, and celebrating social progress.
Catholic immigration in the mid-19th century induced discrimination from anti-immigrant activists. Like many other immigrant communities, Catholics developed organizations to fight discrimination and provide insurance for the struggling immigrants. One such organization, the Knights of Columbus, chose that name in part because it saw Christopher Columbus as a fitting symbol of Catholic immigrants’ right to citizenship: one of their own, a fellow Catholic, had discovered America.
Many Italian-Americans observe Columbus Day as a celebration of their heritage, the first occasion being in New York City on October 12, 1866.Columbus Day was first popularized as a holiday in the United States through the lobbying of Angelo Noce, a first generation Italian, in Denver. The first official, regular Columbus Day holiday was proclaimed by Colorado governor Jesse F. McDonald in 1905 and made a statutory holiday in 1907.In April 1934, as a result of lobbying by the Knights of Columbus, Congress and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt made October 12 a federal holiday under the name Columbus Day.
Opposition to Columbus Day dates to at least the 19th century where activists had sought to eradicate Columbus Day celebrations because of its association with immigrants and the Knights of Columbus. They were afraid it was being used to expand Catholic influence.By far the more common opposition today, decrying Columbus’s and Europeans’ actions against the indigenous populations of the Americas, did not gain much traction until the latter half of the 20th century. This opposition has been spearheaded by indigenous groups[, though it has spread into the mainstream.
There are two main strands of this critique, which are interrelated. The first refers primarily to the indigenous population collapse and cruel treatment towards indigenous peoples during the European colonization of the American continents which followed Columbus’s discovery. Some, such as AIM, have argued that the responsibility of contemporary governments and their citizens for allegedly ongoing acts of genocide against Native Americans are masked by positive Columbus myths and celebrations. These critics argue that a particular understanding of the legacy of Columbus has been used to legitimize their actions, and it is this misuse of history that must be exposed. F. David Peat asserts that many cultural myths of North America exclude or diminish the culture and myths of Native Americans. These cultural myths include ideas expressed by Michael Berliner of the Ayn Rand Institute claiming that Western civilization brought “reason, science, self-reliance, individualism, ambition, and productive achievement” to a people who were based in “primitivism, mysticism, and collectivism”, and to a land that was “sparsely inhabited, unused, and underdeveloped.” American anthropologist Jack Weatherford says that on Columbus Day Americans celebrate the greatest waves of genocide of the Indians known in history. American Indian Movement of Colorado leader and activist Ward Churchill takes this argument further, contending that the mythologizing and celebration of the European settlement of the Americas in Columbus Day make it easier for people today to avoid taking responsibility for their own actions, or the actions of their governments regarding indigenous populations. He wrote in his book Bringing the Law Back Home:
- Very high on the list of those expressions of non-indigenous sensibility [that] contribute to the perpetuation of genocidal policies against Indians are the annual Columbus Day celebration, events in which it is baldly asserted that the process, events, and circumstances described above are, at best, either acceptable or unimportant. More often, the sentiments expressed by the participants are, quite frankly, that the fate of Native America embodied in Columbus and the Columbian legacy is a matter to be openly and enthusiastically applauded as an unrivaled “boon to all mankind”. Undeniably, the situation of American Indians will not — in factcannot — change for the better so long as such attitudes are deemed socially acceptable by the mainstream populace. Hence, such celebrations as Columbus Day must be stopped.
A second strain of the criticism of Columbus Day focuses on the character of Columbus himself. In time for the observation of Columbus Day in 2004, the final volume of a compendium of Columbus-era documents was published by the University of California, Los Angeles’s Medieval and Renaissance Center. Geoffrey Symcox, the general editor of the project, asserted: “While giving the brilliant mariner his due, the collection portrays Columbus as an unrelenting social climber and self-promoter who stopped at nothing— not even exploitation, slavery, or twisting Biblical scripture— to advance his ambitions… Many of the unflattering documents have been known for the last century or more, but nobody paid much attention to them until recently… The fact that Columbus brought slavery, enormous exploitation or devastating diseases to the Americas used to be seen as a minor detail – if it was recognized at all – in light of his role as the great bringer of white man’s civilization to the benighted idolatrous American continent. But to historians today this information is very important. It changes our whole view of the enterprise.”
In the summer of 1990, 350 representatives from Indian groups from all over the hemisphere, met in Quito, Ecuador, at the first Intercontinental Gathering of Indigenous People in the Americas, to mobilize against the quincentennial celebration of Columbus Day. The following summer, in Davis, California, more than a hundred Native Americans gathered for a follow-up meeting to the Quito conference. They declared October 12, 1992, “International Day of Solidarity with Indigenous People.” The largest ecumenical body in the United States, the National Council of Churches, called on Christians to refrain from celebrating the Columbus quincentennial, saying, “What represented newness of freedom, hope, and opportunity for some was the occasion for oppression, degradation and genocide for others.
From Cultural Survival:
Some things You Can Do to Commemorate Indigenous Peoples on Columbus Day
Christopher Columbus arrived as an immigrant to “the New World.” He did not “discover” America. Today, let’s remember and celebrate the People who were here first!
1. Learn about the American Precolonial Roots of Democracy. American democracy was founded on the principles of The Great Law of Peace founded by The Haudenosaunne People (Iroquois) in the Northeast. Read more.
2. Watch 1492 and hear Ward Churchill set the record straight about Columbus and the Doctrine of Discovery.
Why rethink Christopher Columbus? Because the Columbus myth is a foundation of children’s beliefs about society. Columbus is often a child’s first lesson about encounters between different cultures and races. The murky legend of a brave adventurer tells children whose version of history to accept, and whose to ignore. It says nothing about the brutality of the European invasion of North America.We need to listen to a wider range of voices. We need to hear from those whose lands and rights were taken away by those who “discovered” them. Their stories, too often suppressed, tell of 500 years of courageous struggle, and the lasting wisdom of native peoples. Understanding what really happened to them in 1492 is key to understanding why people suffer the same injustices today.More than 80 essays, poems, interviews, historical vignettes, and lesson plans reevaluate the myth of Columbus and issues of indigenous rights. Rethinking Columbus is packed with useful teaching ideas for kindergarten through college.
In this New Edition:
- Updated resource listings
- Classroom materials
- Handouts and lesson plans
- Web site listings
- And much more!
First published in 1991, Rethinking Columbus has changed the way schools teach about the “discovery of America.” This greatly expanded edition has more than 100 pages of new material, including handouts to conduct a classroom “Trial of Columbus” and other activities.
“The original edition made educational history by introducing a startling new view of Columbus … In the revised edition we get even richer material, a marvelous compendium of history, literature, original sources, commentary … an exciting treasure for teachers, students, and the general public.”
— Howard Zinn, author A People’s History of the United States