October 21, 2019

DELGADO | Out With Columbus Day and in With Indigenous Peoples’ Day

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Columbus Day is observed on the second Monday of October in the United States in order to recognize the contributions of Italian Americans and to commemorate the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the “New World” in 1492. The United States has arguably played the largest role in celebrating Columbus while ignoring the consequences of his actions. For this reason, over eight states, 130 cities and 10 universities are recognizing a more deserving alternative — Indigenous Peoples’ Day. I believe that building awareness of the history of Christopher Columbus’s behavior would lead anyone to the conclusion that Indigenous Peoples’ Day should replace Columbus Day — and that Cornell, Tompkins County and America at large aren’t doing enough to make up for Columbus’s actions and the patterns of behavior that he started.

In 1492, Columbus began a series of four voyages to the Carribean. During these four voyages, Columbus and his subordinates plundered minerals and exotic wildlife while fighting brutal campaigns against local resistance and taking slaves. All attempts by Taino natives and other native groups to rebel against the slave states established by Columbus resulted in mass hangings.

In addition to the things that Christopher Columbus did intentionally, we must look at the ramifications of his actions. Columbus set the tone for future exploration of the Americas. The pattern of continued exploitation and slavery was only amplified by the drastic changes that Europeans brought to the environment. Invasive species and new diseases, such as smallpox, killed even more native people through starvation, by killing native species, and general pestilence than direct conflicts with Europeans did. Christopher Columbus did not just commit genocide during his lifetime, but the ripple effects of his actions have killed millions and destabilized numerous indigenous nations.

There will certainly be those who would prefer to hold onto Columbus Day. However, the majority of these pro-Columbus parties are doing so due to a flawed sense of nationalism or readings from the flawed perspective of Columbus’s personal writings. Columbus portrayed the native people that he encountered as helpless people who cut themselves on his sword because they did not know what it was. We know from historical records that the native groups were familiar with war, as they fought numerous battles with Columbus, almost from the beginning, to get him to stop plundering their lands. Columbus was not a hero; he was a murderer. And he should not have his own holiday.

Indigenous People’s Day has the ability to begin a process of acknowledging marginalized groups in American society. Young people should confront the darker side of American history in order to bring about a better tomorrow. I do not believe that much can be done to fix the actions of Christopher Columbus. However, new problems facing indigenous communities such as exploitation by industry could, and should, be combatted.

Cornell University has its own history with Columbus Day. Protests of Columbus Day at Cornell started in early 2000, and Indigenous People’s Day was adopted by the University in 2016. However, the issue of Cornell being built atop the lands of native Cayuga tribes, of the Iroquois confederation, cannot be solved easily. Cornell should partner alongside students and faculty, especially those in American Indian and Indigenous Studies, to raise awareness on campus to inform our community about the importance of celebrating the culture of our original inhabitants.

The Tompkins County legislature currently recognizes Columbus Day and Indigenous People’s Day simultaneously, which misses the point entirely. Celebrating the two holidays concurrently does not take a neutral position; it implies that Columbus Day’s supporters have ground to stand on. Legislator Mike Lane of Tompkins County missed the mark by saying, “[I]ndigenous people have been and are an important part fact [sic] in our community. We’re pleased to have them here. It’s the same with all of our immigrants and other people that are here. They accepted us and we accept them and we want them to understand that they matter to us.” Except that Native Americans were here first. The biggest next step that Americans, particularly those of European descent, can take is to recognize that they are responsible for another historic genocide. And that a history of violence and broken systems can never be made whole.

High above Cayuga’s waters lies not only our institution’s alma mater, but also those who perished for an unjust cause. Let’s remember that day in and day out, that we live and study on Native American soil; this land is stolen and Christopher Columbus is a part of our history that we should not celebrate.

Canaan Delgado is a junior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He can be reached at cdelgado@cornellsun.com. No Church in the Wild appears every other Tuesday this semester.