It is the second Monday in October, the day Congress named Columbus Day. My son bounds from his classroom. Eyes filled with brown warmth, he peeks out from under a cap of shiny dark hair; it’s the kind of black that shines red in sunlight. He is holding a milk carton cutout fashioned into the shape of a boat, with two smaller makeshift vessels trailing behind. Out of the corner of my eye I see children clutching newspaper sailor hats and Columbus’ ships coloring pages.
With his eyebrows curved in question marks my son tells me that there is also a song about Columbus, sung to the tune of “Oh, My Darling Clementine.” And then we both laugh at the absurdity. It’s both funny, and not funny.
We are a mixed-race, mixed-blood Native American family. My son has older siblings and he knows there is controversy surrounding Columbus and his day of recognition. But at age seven it’s not his job to carry the weight. As his mother, that responsibility belongs to me.
Columbus Day first became a federal holiday in the United States in 1937. After strong lobbying from the Knights of Columbus, President Franklin D. Roosevelt proclaimed Oct. 12, 1937, as the first Columbus Day. Over the years the holiday celebration has become controversial: The arrival of Columbus to the Americas — followed by the European settlers — heralded the beginning of devastating movements against indigenous people and the demise of their histories and cultures. As a European colonizer, he set the genocide in motion.
The story of Columbus’ discovery and the indigenous people he misnamed as “Indians” continues to affect us with a dual identity misunderstood by mainstream America. For more than 500 years, Native peoples have been measured and have competed against a Columbus fantasy over which they have no control.
Others argue that Columbus should not be honored for discovering North America because he only went as far as some islands in the Caribbean and never got as far as mainland America. Yet for many Americans, the Columbus myth has become real and a preferred substitute for reality.
Aside from the fact that I’m of Cherokee, Delaware, and Seneca descent, I am something else too — I am a woman. Rape of indigenous women of color became rampant and was tolerated by Columbus. A reported comrade, Michele de Cuneo, who wrote of a relation between himself and a Native woman gifted to him by Columbus, supports this information. There are also reported accounts of Native infants being lifted from their mothers’ breasts by Spaniards and smashed by rocks. The further I dig into history, more horrific acts are revealed. One account reports that he wrote in his journal on Oct. 14, 1492, three days after being greeted with kindness by the Lucayan people (the original inhabitants of the Bahamas), “I could conquer the whole of them with fifty men and govern them as I please.” As I try to disentangle truth from history, I wonder why we celebrate the man in such heroic terms if so much about him needed to be hidden.
Efforts to eliminate or rename Columbus Day in various states and cities have met strong resistance. In my hometown of Los Angeles, City Council voted to allow city employees to take Cesar Chavez Day as a paid holiday instead of Columbus Day, a move that prompted much objection. As a compromise, the council allowed city employees to celebrate either holiday. Finally the state eliminated the Columbus Day holiday as part of a budget-cutting measure, yet city and county offices still observe it. The Unified School District does not.
In 1992, the city of Berkeley was the first to declare the day Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Since then, many other cities and several states have either decided to swap the holidays, or recognize both. As of 2019, Vermont, Maine, Alaska, Oregon, Louisiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Iowa, and Washington, DC celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day. South Dakota celebrates Native American Day, and Hawaii “Discovers’ Day,” which refers to the actual Polynesian discoverers of the island, and explicitly not Columbus.
And while the tides are shifting toward more people condemning the holiday and favoring alternatives like Indigenous Peoples’ Day, millions of Americans still prefer to celebrate Columbus Day. Many want to hold up the story they were told as children, and others now claim the holiday is about Italian pride. New York City’s Columbus Day Parade continues to thrive.*
To understand how deeply ingrained our US collective modern fantasy of Christopher Columbus has become, I turned to Google. A search for “Columbus activities for children” revealed 4,750,000 results with lesson plans, songs, and teaching ideas. It is clear this compliant Columbus image, edited and embellished, is still very much preferred, and being passed on to the youngest generation.
The conversation about why this matters simply must continue every year, until Native Americans are given the respect they are due, and the holiday is finally behind us.
Editor’s note: The Columbus Day Parade is canceled for 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic though a virtual event will be held in its place.
A version of this article was previously published on October 10, 2016, and was updated on September 28, 2020, by the author with more up-to-date information regarding which states observe Indigenous Peoples’ Day.