A lifelong lover of history, I enjoy writing articles about the past & interesting political topics, especially when the two intersect.
Don't Replace Columbus Day With Indigenous Peoples Day
As Columbus Day approaches each year, some groups on the left start agitating for the replacement of Columbus Day with an Indigenous People's Day.
Honoring the history and culture of the native people living in our country prior to start of the 15th century Age of Exploration is a good idea, which in 1968 led California Governor Ronald Reagan to sign a resolution passed by the legislature establishing the 4th Friday in September as American Indian Day (renamed Native American Day by the legislature in 1998). Since then, some other U.S. states have created similar holidays honoring the pre-Columbian inhabitants of the United States.
Is Indigenous People's Day a Celebration or an Attempt to Rewrite History?
While the past is behind us and can’t be changed, our view of the past can, and sometimes does, change. Change can come as a result of the discovery of new evidence in the form of finding lost manuscripts, new archaeological discoveries, or new discoveries in related disciplines. It can lead to a reinterpretation based upon the new evidence. However, throughout history there have been groups and leaders, such as Vladimir Lenin and the ruling Russian Communists, who suppress or destroy materials, including monuments, in an attempt to rewrite history to favor their cause.
Today, many of those seeking to change Columbus Day to Indigenous People's Day tend to present the history of the European discovery and colonization of the Americas within the framework of a Marxist class struggle in which the European explorers are the oppressors and the native peoples the oppressed, with the goal of advancing their political agenda rather than celebrating the culture of native people.
Who Are Indigenous Peoples?
While definitions vary, the term "indigenous people" is commonly understood to refer to the group of people living in an area prior to the arrival of a new, and often larger, group from outside.
While the movement of people has been constant throughout human existence on earth, it is the European discovery and colonization of the Americas on which opponents of Columbus Day focus.
Europe at the Time of Columbus
Many of those who call for changing Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day tend to give the impression that a conquering Europe sought to destroy the peaceful native inhabitants of the Americas.
This is not correct as Europe was not, and still is not, a nation with its own unique culture, language, laws, and government. Instead, it is a continent made up of numerous independent nations each with different histories, cultures, laws, and languages. At the time of Columbus, and down to modern times, individual European nations have retained their own cultures, languages, and laws while trading and periodically warring against each other.
The fall of Constantinople (later renamed Istanbul) to an invading Turkish Army from Asia in 1453 resulted in European traders losing access to the famous Silk Road trade route between Europe and the Far East. This led to a push to find a sea route to Asia in which Christopher Columbus and some of his seafaring rivals were seeking.
The Americas at the Time of Columbus
Like Europe, the Americas (the continents of North and South America) were populated by numerous tribes who traded with each other and fought with each other. Like European nations, these tribes had their own languages, cultures, and tribal identities.
These native tribes ranged from small, nomadic, or agricultural groups, sharing a common language and culture while occupying the same geographic area. There were also tribes that not only lived within a specific geographic area but also ruled over and controlled a much larger surrounding area inhabited by other tribes they had conquered. Like some European monarchs who ruled and taxed principalities outside of their kingdom, these tribes ruled and regularly extracted tribute from the neighboring tribes they controlled.
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Other than the native peoples’ lack of horses and wheeled vehicles, along with the inability to produce steel tools and weapons from iron ore, life for people in Europe and native peoples in the Americas was not much different. There were differences among classes in both areas with the masses of peasants having the most primitive living conditions and the upper classes having access to a somewhat better material life.
Arguments Used by Critics of Columbus
Present-day critics of Columbus and the European colonization that followed cite a number of arguments to support their effort to do away with Columbus Day and replace it with a federal Indigenous People's Day holiday.
1. Columbus Didn’t Discover America
One of the first things often put forward by critics is the fact that when Columbus arrived, people had been living in the Americas for thousands of years, which means that it had already been discovered. So it makes no sense to credit Columbus as the discoverer of the Americas.
However, Columbus’ claim to fame is due to being the first European whose discovery was made known throughout Europe at a time when many people were interested in knowing there was a sea route to China.
Columbus himself always believed that he had found a westward sea route from Europe to Asia. From his discovery until his death Columbus continued to believe that he had discovered a new route to Asia and not a new land. For him the lands where he arrived was Asia - the eastern portion of the Eurasian land mass on which people had been migrating, traveling, conquering and trading with each other for thousands of years.
2. Discovery Led to Attempted Genocide by Disease
Columbus and the Europeans that followed after him are being accused of committing genocide against the native peoples of the Americas. While there are no hard figures, only estimates that vary depending upon whose theory one is using, historians generally agree that the native population of the Americas suffered a decline that seems to coincide with the arrival of Columbus.
Critics of Columbus and the European colonization of North and South America frequently cite genocide by the Europeans for this apparent decline. Genocide involves the deliberate intent to wipe out a particular racial or ethnic group. However, as was pointed out above, at the time of Columbus Europe was a collection of warring nations who were busy fighting and killing each other. They didn’t have the time to get together and plan, let alone have the resources needed to undertake the deliberate annihilation of people living on two continents across the Atlantic that stretched from the Arctic to the Antarctic.
There is no disputing the fact that early European explorers and settlers brought a number of diseases, including smallpox, to the Americas which proved deadly to the native inhabitants. However, the Europeans bringing these diseases to the Americas were unwitting carriers of these germs. Smallpox and many other diseases have an incubation period during which the germs can be passed on to others before signs of the disease appear in the infected person.
Diseases like smallpox were common in Europe and, over time, Europeans developed varying degrees of immunity to these then-common diseases which enabled them to better survive and in some cases even avoid the diseases. The native people of the Americas lacked this immunity.
There have been tales of Europeans deliberately giving blankets used by one of their own who had died from smallpox to local natives in an attempt to eliminate the natives in the area. While natives may have come in contact with bedding or other clothing belonging to people who had died of smallpox science had not advanced to the point where people understood disease well enough to use it in warfare.
The Italian scientist Girolamo Fracastoro first proposed the germ theory of disease in 1546. However, scientists lacked the tools needed to see germs, let alone conduct experiments to learn how germs caused disease. Until the late 19th century people, including physicians, believed in the miasma theory which claimed that diseases were caused by invisible particles carried by vapors or bad air which people inhaled and became sick.
3. Genocide by War
Even if they accept the argument that death by disease was accidental and unintentional, some critics still accuse the Europeans of annihilating the original inhabitants of the Americas through warfare.
The objective of Columbus’ voyages was finding a western sea route to China and the East Indies for trade purposes and not overseas conquest. Following his successful first voyage, the Spanish crown gave him the titles and awards he had been promised before leaving. Being an excellent marketer, he began wooing investors and colonists to return with him to the new lands.
He made two more voyages to the new lands with responsibility for managing the colony he established. As governor of the new territories, he proved to be both a harsh ruler as well as a poor administrator. His enslaving of, against the orders of the King and Queen of Spain, many of the local natives, along with general misrule led to Columbus being arrested and returned to Spain in chains where he was tried and imprisoned. Friends eventually convinced the King and Queen to release Columbus and provide him with ships and crews for a fourth voyage but his lucrative royal titles and government posts were not restored to him.
When Europeans began coming to the Americas, they brought their disputes and alliances with them. Upon landing in new areas and encountering the natives of the area one of three things generally happened:
- In some cases, each side saw new trade possibilities and a trading relationship was established.
- In other cases, one or both sides had enemies in the vicinity and formed an alliance to fight together.
- In the third instance, the natives and Europeans each saw the other as a threat and began fighting.
During colonial times fighting between European settlers and natives usually involved one of the colonial powers and one or more of its native allies against another foreign colonial foe or its allies. This continued after the American Revolution when some native individuals or tribes sided with the U.S. Army in protecting settlers against native attacks during territorial disputes.
No Individual Is Required to Observe Official Holidays
Official Federal Holidays are days on which most Federal government offices are closed and their employees have the day off as a paid holiday. Most states tend to observe federal holidays by closing state offices (and often public schools and colleges) and giving their employees a paid day off. Some private employers also observe federal holidays by closing and giving their employees the day off. The same is true for certain state holidays.
However, no public or private employers are required by law to close and give their employees the holiday off. Similarly, individuals are not required to formally observe or participate in events associated with official Federal or state holidays or any other holidays their employer decides to close and give employees the day off with pay.
In addition to the fact that no person is legally required to celebrate official Federal or State holidays enacted by Congress or a state legislature, there is also no law that prevents individuals from observing other holidays that have not been created by a legislature.
Leave Columbus Day Alone and Work to Create an Indigenous Peoples Holiday
Finally, in addition to individuals not having to participate in holidays for which their employer gives them a paid day off there is nothing against individuals joining with others to create a new holiday more in tune with their interests. Once the group agrees on what to celebrate and when to celebrate it they can go about organizing the annual celebration.
The goal can be to get Congress to pass legislation to make it a Federal Holiday. This is the way the Italians created Columbus Day and labor groups created Labor Day, both of which are now Federal holidays. However, it took years of work building support among individuals as well as local groups and state legislatures to support the holiday before there was enough national support for Congress to pass legislation making these two holidays Federal holidays. Despite the years of effort that went into creating holidays like Columbus Day, Labor Day and other secular holidays many people are basically oblivious to what the holiday commemorates and look upon such holidays as a day off from work and as a chance to relax and enjoy the day with family and friends.
The other way to create a holiday is to work to get people to come out and celebrate the holiday without backing from the state or Federal governments. Both St. Patrick’s Day and Halloween are holidays that have evolved over time and are celebrated throughout the country without the government passing legislation to create them or employer support in the form of paid days off for their employees.
Either way, the key is providing an opportunity for people to come together for a few minutes or a day to celebrate and enjoy an event together, rather than fermenting anger and division which appears to be the goal of many of those opposing Columbus Day.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2019 Chuck Nugent