Author: Bennett Collins
In the past year, Buffalo has begun adjusting itself to the times. We recognized that Squ*w is too demeaning for Native American women to be the name of one of our city’s islands. Then the Lancaster school board found that Redsk*ns had no place being the name of a school mascot given the name’s violent history and its disparaging impact on Native youth. Now, a national holiday approaches, which glorifies a man who travelled the ocean blue, but to the detriment of Indigenous Peoples across the Americas.
I can hear your sigh. After all, this debate comes up each year. But Columbus Day is one of ten federal holidays, most of which are days that are devoted to U.S. history and respect those who have served their country. It deserves its day in court. I would just like us to ask ourselves the question why the government asks every American to take a day and commemorate a man who, at the very least, has nothing to do with the United States.
Unfortunately, the logic that leads us to celebrate Columbus Day doesn’t add up. Let us first go through a small history of ‘who Columbus was’. After the monarchs King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella purged Jews and Muslims from Spanish lands, they wanted to join the age of exploration, find new trading routes, and claim new lands (and Catholicize new peoples). Enter Christopher Columbus, an Italian merchant who believed he could find a more direct trade route from Europe to Asia by sailing across the Atlantic, rather than around the African continent, via the faulty assumption that Earth’s circumference was smaller than popular belief. Come 1492, Columbus sails the ocean blue and lands in the Bahamas, claims the land for Spain, and begins a violent campaign of colonization that even shocked Isabella when he sent her 500 Indigenous slaves as a gift. This man would later proudly document his experiences carrying out torture, enslavement, and genocide against the Indigenous Peoples of the Caribbean and the northern part of South America. The end.
Today, across the country, we pay this man homage. Parks, statues, an Ivy League university, geographic regions, and even our nation’s capital all carry either Columbus’ name itself or the appellation, ‘Columbia’. Not only is it commonly accepted that Vikings had been the first Europeans, that are known of, to come into contact with the ‘New World’, but Columbus himself never even stepped foot on the mainland that is the United States. So I ask, why do we celebrate him, if not for the claim of being the first European to come into contact with the Americas? His morality is certainly not worth celebrating. He did not actually ‘discover’ this land that was clearly already inhabited. Even today, students today learn the horrors of Columbus inside the classroom. As a result, by giving them the day off and commemorating this man, we teach youth not only a good lesson in irony, but also that our society has a selective memory of our American heroes – even if they weren’t American.
Today, to Indigenous Peoples across the Americas, the Columbus represents the bang of the gun to European colonization and the ensuing violence that would be committed against Indigenous Peoples for hundreds of years (see the 2015 report from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada that declared the residential school era as ‘genocide’ against Indigenous Peoples. The last residential school closed in the 1990s). It is then of no surprise that many cities and states with high Indigenous populations/proportions, from Seattle to Minneapolis to Hawai’i to South Dakota, have already changed the name of the holiday from Columbus Day to a day that pays homage to Indigenous Peoples.
So then how did this man get his own holiday? Columbus Day was first recognized under President Franklin D. Roosevelt allegedly as a result of the lobbying efforts of the fraternal Catholic organization, the Knights of Columbus. Finally, it was Richard Nixon who finally formalized it as a national holiday. So to this day, many Italian-American groups across the country put forth that celebrating Christopher Columbus is an ode to Italian pride. Some believe that the man and his accomplishments are worth celebrating given his Italian roots and his great accomplishment of navigating the Atlantic to ‘discover the New World’. Another reason goes back to the days where Italians immigrants were heavily discriminated against and Christopher Columbus became an icon who Italians could point to in order to show that they belonged in the ‘New World’ order. While many who oppose Columbus Day put forth that the Italians have many more icons to celebrate than a man who committed heinous atrocities, this latter reason why Italian-Americans identify with Columbus is harder to contend with, given that it is the unfortunate result of the xenophobia that has historically been thrown at new waves of immigrants in this country. However, this is not good enough reason to make a saint out of a man in a country whose Indigenous Peoples are still facing the many effects of colonization.
For Buffalo, celebrating and recognizing this man is certainly an affront to the thousands of Indigenous Peoples in this region, and in particular the Haudenosaunee, or ‘the Iroquois’. The Tuscarora and Seneca reservations are all within earshot of our city. Six Nations, the largest First Nations reserve in Canada that is named after the six nations of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, is only 90 minutes from our border. This week, the 60-year old statue of Christopher Columbus in Prospect Park was spray painted with the words, ‘genocide’, ‘rape’, and ‘Peccata vestra exponuntur’. Translated from Latin, the phrase reads ‘Your sins are exposed’. Recognize that our city lies historically and presently in the middle of Haudenosaunee country, should we be surprised that an effigy to this man was defaced with the crimes against Indigenous Peoples that Columbus represents? Whether it is the Columbus statue in the West Side or the holiday day itself, it is time for the city to purge itself of a man who has no place in our rich past nor has a place amongst this City of Good Neighbors.
This is not a matter of political correctness, as many will hasten to say. This is correcting the errors of our past to match the enlightenment of our present. As our country begins to awaken to the many names and symbols that were created and have remained from a darker past, we must be alert and critical of our historical traditions and question whether they contribute to unity and understanding amongst the many peoples of this city, let alone this country.