What are We Celebrating on Columbus Day?

landing_of_columbus_2Is Columbus Day an appropriate holiday to celebrate? What about Indigenous Peoples’ Day, or Discoverers’ Day? What are we really celebrating today?

Many of us seem to find celebrating Christopher Columbus, specifically, distasteful. We don’t appreciate his treatment of the indigenous peoples that he encountered (treachery, subjugation, rape, and murder not being considered very kind acts nowadays). We point out that he didn’t strictly speaking discover America given that he thought he was landing in the Indies, that he wasn’t actually the first Westerner to set foot in the Americas, that he never actually set foot on the North American continent proper, and that he essentially failed in his mission to find a faster route for trading with India and the Far East. It doesn’t seem like he was a man worthy of remembrance and celebration?

So why do we celebrate him?

Columbus Day isn’t really about celebrating the man, but about the establishment of routes for trade and exploration between Europe and what would later be named the Americas (after Amerigo Vespucci). While Columbus wasn’t technically the first European to “discover” America, it was his voyages that established continuing travel between the continents. The impact of European contact with the Americas is far from a tale of unending sunshine and happiness. Exploration and settlement by the Europeans meant conquest and subjugation for the indigenous peoples. We should not white-wash this fact. Nevertheless, Columbus’s voyages changed the course of history, for better or for worse.

I’m personally in favor of marking a date of obvious historical significance, but I follow the reasoning of those who would prefer we not celebrate Columbus the man. It would also be useful if we disposed of certain myths, such as Columbus discovering America, or Columbus proving the world was “round” (which was well known at the time). The impact on the indigenous peoples encountered by Columbus needs to be highlighted as well. It is worth mentioning that Columbus’s perceptions of and actions toward the people he met were despicable, but reflected the prevailing sentiment of Europeans at the time. (Arguably, the Western perception of innate superiority to other cultures still prevails today, though it is more likely to manifest as patronization than subjugation.) A shift to Discoverers’ Day broadens the scope to include the historical impacts of worldwide exploration while avoiding glorification of a specific explorer of questionable character. This is still a very Euro-centric view, though, and potentially downplays the plight of an even broader range of indigenous peoples. Focusing specifically on the indigenous peoples runs an opposite risk of losing objective historical clarity, as we might focus solely on the negative impacts of Western exploration (or encroachment, based on perspective).

It seems a difficult needle to thread. Is it even necessary to have a holiday dedicated to Western exploration and conquest? Is it not sufficient to simply study this as history? Perhaps we should consider another reason to have a federal holiday in October. (Also, please read this post by Mitch Teemly on the topic: To Columbus or Not to Columbus?)


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