Lionizing Columbus for “Discovering” America Neglects the Contributions of Native Americans
by Margaret M. Russell, Professor of Law and Interim Associate Provost for Diversity and Inclusion at Santa Clara University
The question of whether Indigenous Peoples Day should replace Columbus Day as an official government holiday should ultimately be one of democratic governance. Although some trace precursors of Columbus Day as far back as the late 18th century, the process of making it a state and federal holiday did not occur until the early 20th century. It achieved federal holiday status in 1934 by congressional enactment during the administration of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Columbus Day is most commonly associated with the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the Americas in 1492, as well as with a celebration of Italian-American heritage. In my view, celebrating Italian-American culture is both glorious and delightful, but lionizing Christopher Columbus for his “discovery” of America is misguided.
Herein lies the story of the development of Indigenous Peoples Day: the desire to acknowledge that the story of this nation did not begin with the arrival of Columbus. Recognizing Indigenous Peoples Day offers an opportunity to restore Native Americans to their rightful place at the center of the American story.
“An unattended wound gets infected.” This observation from writer Tommy Orange in There There, his novel about contemporary Native American urban life, is a succinct assessment of why it is important to acknowledge the historical and present-day harms inflicted upon Native Americans. Amidst the rancorous and painful divisions in the United States today, there is a great need for truth, reconciliation, and healing. We cannot reach these goals without being straightforward about basic facts underlying our country’s origins and expansion. Indigenous Peoples Day takes us a step forward by recognizing that the Americas were inhabited before Columbus arrived, and by honoring Native American history and culture.
If we are to create a society of equality and respect, it is essential to resist the temptation to obscure or devalue the significance of Native Americans. Nelson Mandela, in speaking of the atrocities of his own country, South Africa, commented: “True reconciliation does not consist in merely forgetting thepast.” The United States has its own record of atrocities. The emergence of Indigenous Peoples Day reflects a willingness toface up to our past with the hope of building a better future.
One misconception of Indigenous Peoples Day is that it is just a faddish indulgence of the left. In fact, it is celebrated across the United States as a city or state holiday in numerous locations based on local grass roots efforts. South Dakota was the first state to designate the second Monday of October as Native Americansâ€™ Day, in early 1990 under Gov. George S. Mickelson, a Republican. This South Dakota law, and the designation of a statewide “Year of Reconciliation,” was the result of hard work spearheaded by Native American advocates Tim Giago, Harold Iron Shield, Birgil Kills Straight, Lynn Hart, and others. The final bill was the result of legislative compromise, but its text is clear: “Native Americans’ Day is dedicatedto the remembrance of the great Native American leaders who contributed so much to the history of our state.” Today, four states—Alaska, Hawaii, Oregon, and South Dakota—have replaced Columbus Day with some version of a day of recognition of indigenous peoples.
More than 50 cities from a diversity of states across the country have joined them, including cities in New York, Connecticut, Maine, Oklahoma, Texas, Georgia, West Virginia, Utah, California, and Tennessee. A few municipalities recognize both; others have chosen a day other than the second Monday in October to recognize Native Americans. But ultimately, one or two days of recognition of the history and culture of Native Americans is only a beginning. True progress is measured by hard work on an ongoing basis. This requires recognizing and addressing the issues faced by the approximately 1 to 2 percent of the U.S. population who identify as Native American: higher rates of suicide, diabetes, tuberculosis, alcohol addiction; higher rates of violence against women; higher rates of poverty, to name a few.
Ultimately, Indigenous Peoples Day is just one opportunity for Americans to educate ourselves fully about both the origins of our country and the tremendous gift of culture that Native Americans have given us. As is true with the many cultures in our country, there should be more than one day of the year to celebrate, honor, and heal.
NOTE: This op-ed appeared in the Los Angeles Times on Oct. 4, 2018, as well as nearly 30 other publications or news sites nationwide including the Chicago Tribune.