February 21, 2024

Opinion: Why do we still celebrate Columbus Day?

Why do we still celebrate Columbus Day?

According to the Library of Congress, the first officially Columbus Day took place in 1892, when President Benjamin Harrison issues a proclamation “recommending to the people the observance in all their localities of the 400th anniversary of the discovery of America.

For years after that, Columbus Day was generally celebrated, but didn’t become an officially national holiday until 1934, when October 12 was designated such by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. It wasn’t until 1971 the United States started celebrating Columbus Day on the second Monday of October.

Columbus Day was and still is often celebrated with the mythos of Christopher Colombus in mind. People think about this great moral character coming from Europe and discovering the Americas, helping make it into the place it is today.

I remember in kindergarten learning a poem about the greatness of Columbus.

In fourteen hundred ninety-two

Columbus sailed the ocean blue.

He had three ships and left from Spain;

He sailed through sunshine, wind and rain.

The story continues on how he and his soldiers worked hard to get to India. Instead, they found the Bahamas, and believing it was India, called the native people “Indians.” The final part of the poem isn’t as well known, but generally follows the same sentiment.

He made the trip again and again,

Trading gold to bring to Spain.

The first American? No, not quite.

But Columbus was brave, and he was bright.

So yes, they acknowledge that he wasn’t the first American, but portray him as this wonderful explorer. Let’s look at what actually happened.

Christopher Columbus was born in 1451 in Genoa, Italy. He spent almost 20 years in Lisbon, Portugal, trying to gain support for a journey to what was then called the “Far East.” He eventually made his way to Valladolid, Spain, where King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella agreed to finance his trip.

Columbus hoped to find a way by sea to get to India, China, Japan and the islands of the area. Western Europeans traded greatly with these people, and Columbus believed he could find a way to this land by sailing west, rather than around Africa, as was common then.

In the year 1492, Columbus left Palos, Spain, with three ships, the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria, and about 90 men. They sailed across the Atlantic Ocean for 10 weeks, landing in what Columbus called San Salvador, in what is now the Bahamas.

As Columbus sailed around from island to island, he met many native peoples. Almost all of them greeted him kindly and wanted to trade. He, in turn, killed, raped and enslaved them. According to History.com, on one island Columbus sailed to lived the peaceful Taino people. Within 60 years of Columbus landing in the Bahamas, what was once 250,000 Tainos became only a few hundred.

Like many Europeans of that time, Columbus believed the native people were lesser beings and treated them as such. The Americas were his for the taking, and the native people were simply “wild animals” in his way.

In fact, his actions were bad enough that, in 1500, the King and Queen of Spain had Columbus detained and brought back to Spain.

As the truth of what Columbus did has come out, there have been arguments for changing Columbus day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Instead of celebrating a man who claimed land that already belonged to someone else, a man who raped, tortured and murdered to obtain this land, we should celebrate and learn about the people who were there first, the people who were raped, tortured and murdered simply for existing.

While this holiday did occur Monday of this week, I would encourage people to look into the history of Indigenous People, especially those who once lived on the land you now occupy. According to the Iowa Historic Indian Location Database, it was the Potawatomi tribe that resided in what is now Creston.

As Americans, we spend so much time focusing on our country’s history once the Europeans arrived, but we mostly ignore our nation’s history from before that. The indigenous people lived and thrived in this land long before the Europeans ever stepped foot in the Americas (which was actually Norse explorer Leif Erikson about 500 years before Columbus).

Erin Henze

Originally from Wisconsin, Erin is a recent graduate from UW-Stevens Point. Outside of writing, she loves to read and travel.