The Controversy Over Columbus Day Celebrations

Columbus day parade

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Opposition to Columbus Day (observed on the second Monday of October) has intensified in recent decades. The Italian explorer’s arrival in the New World ushered in genocide against Indigenous people as well as the transatlantic trade of enslaved people. Thus Columbus Day, much like Thanksgiving, highlights Western imperialism and the conquest of Indigenous peoples.

The circumstances surrounding Christopher Columbus’ foray into the Americas have led to an end to Columbus Day observances in some areas of the U.S. In such regions, the contributions Indigenous peoples have made to the country are recognized instead. But these places are exceptions and not the rule. Columbus Day remains a mainstay in nearly all U.S. cities and states. To change this, activists opposed to these celebrations have launched multi-pronged efforts to demonstrate why Columbus Day should be eradicated.

Origins of Columbus Day

Christopher Columbus may have first left his mark on the Americas in the 15th century, but the United States didn’t establish a federal holiday in his honor until 1937. Commissioned by Spanish King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella to explore Asia, Columbus instead sailed to the New World in 1492. He first disembarked in the Bahamas, later making his way to Cuba and the island of Hispanola, now the home of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Believing that he had located China and Japan, Columbus founded the first Spanish colony in the Americas with the help of nearly 40 crewmembers. The following spring, he traveled back to Spain where he presented Ferdinand and Isabella with spices, minerals, and Indigenous people he’d captured for enslavement.

It would take three trips back to the New World for Columbus to determine that he hadn’t located Asia but a continent altogether unfamiliar to the Spanish. By the time he died in 1506, Columbus had crisscrossed the Atlantic numerous times. Clearly, Columbus left his mark on the New World, but should he be given credit for discovering it?

Columbus Didn’t Discover America

Generations of Americans grew up learning that Christopher Columbus discovered the New World. But Columbus wasn’t the first European to land in the Americas. Back in the 10th century, the Vikings explored Newfoundland, Canada. DNA evidence has also found that Polynesians settled in South America before Columbus traveled to the New World. There’s also the fact that when Columbus arrived in the Americas in 1492, more than 100 million people inhabited the New World. G. Rebecca Dobbs wrote in her essay “Why We Should Abolish Columbus Day” that to suggest that Columbus discovered America is to suggest that those who inhabited the Americas are nonentities. Dobbs argues:

“How can anyone discover a place which tens of millions already know about? To assert that this can be done is to say that those inhabitants are not human. And in fact, this is exactly the attitude many Europeans…displayed toward indigenous Americans. We know, of course, that this is not true, but to perpetuate the idea of a Columbian discovery is to continue to assign a non-human status to those 145 million people and their descendants.”

While Columbus did not discover the Americas, he also did not popularize the idea that the earth was round. The educated Europeans of Columbus’ day widely acknowledged that the earth was not flat, contrary to reports. Given that Columbus neither discovered the New World nor dispelled the flat earth myth, opponents to the Columbus observance question why the federal government has set aside a day in the explorer’s honor.

Columbus’ Impact on Indigenous People

The main reason Columbus Day draws opposition is because of how the explorer’s arrival to the New World affected Indigenous people. European settlers not only introduced new diseases to the Americas that wiped out scores of Indigenous people, but also warfare, colonization, enslavement, and torture. In light of this, the American Indian Movement (AIM) has called on the federal government to stop observances of Columbus Day. AIM likened Columbus Day celebrations in the U.S. to the German people establishing a holiday to celebrate Adolf Hitler with parades and festivals in Jewish communities. According to AIM:

“Columbus was the beginning of the American holocaust, ethnic cleansing characterized by murder, torture, raping, pillaging, robbery, slavery, kidnapping, and forced removals of Indian people from their homelands. …We say that to celebrate the legacy of this murderer is an affront to all Indian peoples, and others who truly understand this history.”

Alternatives to Columbus Day

Since 1990 the state of South Dakota has celebrated Native American Day in lieu of Columbus Day to honor its residents of Indigenous heritage. South Dakota has an Indigenous population of 8.8%, according to 2010 census figures. In Hawaii, Discoverers’ Day is celebrated rather than Columbus Day. Discoverers’ Day pays homage to the Polynesian explorers who sailed to the New World. The city of Berkeley, California, also doesn’t celebrate Columbus Day, instead recognizing Indigenous Peoples Day since 1992.

More recently, cities such as Seattle, Albuquerque, Minneapolis, Santa Fe, New Mexico, Portland, Oregon, and Olympia, Washington, have all established Indigenous Peoples' Day celebrations in place of Columbus Day.

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Nittle, Nadra Kareem. "The Controversy Over Columbus Day Celebrations." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Nittle, Nadra Kareem. (2023, April 5). The Controversy Over Columbus Day Celebrations. Retrieved from Nittle, Nadra Kareem. "The Controversy Over Columbus Day Celebrations." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 28, 2023).