Why Columbus Day Is One of the Most Controversial Holidays in America

For some, Christopher Columbus is a figure of pride. For others, he is a symbol of racism and discrimination. Read on to learn more.

Everyone has heard of the famous—or, depending on the point of view, infamous—explorer Christopher Columbus. Hailing from Genoa, Italy, but crossing the ocean in the name of the Spanish Crown, the explorer made his mark on history when he accidentally stumbled upon the Americas in 1492. The school rhyme, “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue,” has since become one of the cornerstones of American education. The problem: the actual history didn’t play out quite the way many grew up thinking it did, like these famous moments in history that never actually happened. This conflict between reality and fiction is what makes Columbus Day one of the most controversial holidays in America.

Columbus didn’t discover America

At the end of the 15th century, Catholic monarchs Queen Isabella I of Castile and King Ferdinand II of Aragon ruled over Spain and were quite taken with an explorer who promised to find a Northwest Passage to Asia. Little did they know, this ambitious explorer would sail to another continent entirely. But not only did Columbus not discover America on purpose, he didn’t discover it at all. The Vikings, led by Leif Eriksson, beat him to it by about half a millennium. But the most important point is that there were native peoples living on this land for about 20,000 years prior to that. It may have been a “New World” for Europeans, but it was already home to generations of natives. Check out these 13 facts about Native Americans you didn’t learn in history class.

He enslaved the natives

To Columbus and his men, the indigenous Taíno tribes were lesser people who would make “good servants,” according to reporting in Smithsonian Magazine. Before long the Spainards removed the men from the villages and forced them into hard labor, while the native women were raped and taken as wives. Today, Christopher Columbus is increasingly known for these human rights atrocities, causing people of all walks of life to rethink the holiday celebrating him. Here are 21 other facts you never learned about Christopher Columbus.

Columbus and his crew spread disease

Harsh working and living conditions made the Taíno all the more vulnerable to disease, which they contracted from the Spanish settlers. By some accounts, 85 percent of the Taíno had disappeared by the early 1500s, reports Smithsonian Magazine. Among the many ailments the Spaniards brought with them were measles, smallpox, influenza, and bubonic plague.

Italian-Americans take pride in him

While none of the above may sound like much to celebrate, for more than 100 years, Italian-Americans have seen Christopher Columbus as a figure of Italian heritage and pride. In the late 18th century, Italians were looking for something to latch onto to legitimize their new place in America, and his was a name everyone already knew. Over the decades, educators have made an effort to acknowledge the true, cruel history of Columbus and his dealings with Taíno peoples. But as tradition and cultural awareness clash, the National Italian American Foundation still clings to Columbus Day with pride, remembering him as “the catalyst that initiated over 500 years of immigration to the Americas by people from every corner of the Earth.”

We’ve learned since then

In the United States, many kids are taught about a caricature of Christopher Columbus instead of the real man. He is seen as a folk hero, seemingly having paved the way for what we now know as America. But that started to change in 1992; 500 years after his Spanish ships pulled up to these shores, that rosy image was challenged when Berkeley, California, became the first city to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

States embrace Indigenous Peoples’ Day

After that first step by Berkeley, and in the wake of protests and public outcry, state governments began making the switch to Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Alaska, Iowa, Louisiana, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oregon, South Dakota, Vermont, Wisconsin, and the District of Columbia all observe Indigenous Peoples’ Day in place of or alongside Columbus Day. In addition, the state of Hawaii celebrates “Discoverer’s Day” to recognize the Polynesian discoverers of the Hawaiian islands and in 2020, Colorado celebrated Mother Cabrini Day, in honor of Frances Xavier Cabrini, a woman who created schools, hospitals, and orphanages in the United States and South and Central America, for the first time. Many think this is progress. Still, not even half of the United States honor the native tribes by recognizing the day; it is not a federal holiday like Columbus Day.

Will 2020’s call for social justice end the debate?

As 2020 sees social justice issues at the forefront of the nation’s cultural conversation in a way not seen since the civil rights movement of the 1960s, a lot of anger and sadness on the part of BIPOC has come to light as activists take to streets and town halls. The curricula taught in schools across the country are under a microscope right now, so the answer may come sooner rather than later. The needle has already moved on these 24 positive changes we’ve seen since the anti-racism movement began.

Sources:

  • The Atlantic: “A New History of the First Peoples in the Americas”
  • Smithsonian Magazine: “What Became of the Taíno?”
  • PBS: “Teaching Kids About Thanksgiving or Columbus? They Deserve The Real Story

Taylor Markarian
Taylor Markarian is a regular contributor to Reader's Digest's Culture, Advice, Travel and Pets beats. She is also a music journalist who has contributed to Alternative Press, Loudwire, Revolver, Kerrang! and more. Markarian is the author of the book, 'From the Basement: A History of Emo Music and How It Changed Society', which analyzes the evolution of punk and mental health. She holds a degree in Writing, Literature & Publishing from Emerson College.