Abolish Columbus Day 

The slow-spreading effort to redefine a hero to a tyrant

click to enlarge Kelly Tudor and her children protested Columbus Day on Monument Circle Monday. - LORI LOVELY
  • Kelly Tudor and her children protested Columbus Day on Monument Circle Monday.
  • Lori Lovely

[Editor's Note: This article was originally posted on October 15, 2014. We are recirculating it given the increased effort around the United States to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples' Day.]

Seven-year-old Aslan and four-year-old Ohanna distributed flyers citing facts about Christopher Columbus to passersby on Monument Circle under the watchful eye of their mother, Kelly Tudor, who held signs while she explained why celebrating the Italian sailor mistakenly credited with founding this land is offensive.

“It’s all myth, being taught as fact,” Tudor began. “It actually comes from a fictional book published in the 1800s.”

She’s most likely referring to The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus by Washington Irving. The book, published in 1829, was a popular biographical account that established the story of a triumphant explorer who conquered numerous dangers as part of American romantic folklore.

Fact vs. fable

The truth is that Columbus miscalculated the degrees of longitude between Europe and the Far East, landing far from his anticipated destination. It remains unclear whether he ever acknowledged that the land he visited on four round-trips was not, in fact, part of Asia.

What is clear is that he didn’t discover anything; he invaded a land already inhabited and previously visited by others as long ago as 70,000 B.C. Leif Erikson, the Norse explorer who landed 500 years earlier than Columbus, was recently recognized when Congress, by joint resolution, authorized President Obama to proclaim October 9 as Leif Erikson Day to honor the country’s Nordic-American heritage.

“[Columbus] is glorified as a world traveler,” Tudor recaps, “but he was a mediocre sea farer hired to bring back gold and slaves.” Some Native Americans refer to him as this country’s first terrorist. Tudor points out that he was a tyrant to his own men as well.

According to HistoryisaWeapon.com, he reneged on a promise to pay the first man to sight land on his initial voyage an annual pension of 10,000 maravedis for life. A sailor named Rodrigo spotted the shoreline on October 12, but Columbus collected the reward by claiming he had seen a light the previous evening.

Legacy of cruelty

He was more unfair and cruel once the ships landed. After invading the “new world” (the Bahamas and later Hispaniola, present-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic), Columbus seized natives and insisted they take him to the source of the gold he saw displayed. When they didn’t, he captured, enslaved and sold many of the island’s inhabitants – Arawaks, Tainos and Lucayans, all of whom were friendly, according to his own writings.

Later, when Columbus served as Viceroy and Governor of the Indies, slaves in the gold mines were required to regularly produce gold. Those who didn’t had their hands cut off, which were then tied around their necks while they bled to death. Approximately 10,000 died handless.

Columbus also sold sex slaves as young as age 9 to his men. He and his men routinely raided the villages for sex and sport.

Bartolome De Las Casas, a Dominican friar who became the Bishop of Chiapas, documented these atrocities. “Such inhumanities and barbarisms were committed in my sight as no age can parallel. My eyes have seen these acts so foreign to human nature that now I tremble as I write.”

The terrifying acts he witnessed included Spaniards beheading Native people in contests, throwing them into vats of boiling soap and testing the sharpness of blades on them by cutting them in half. There are also accounts of Spaniards tearing suckling infants from their mother’s breasts and dashing them headfirst on rocks. Natives died by the thousands. Within two years, roughly 250,000 Natives on Haiti were dead. By 1515, estimates indicate only 50,000 remained – a number that dwindled to 500 by 1550 and to zero in 1650. In four years, four million Native deaths can be attributed to Columbus and his men.

Numerous complaints about Columbus’ mismanagement of Hispaniola resulted in his arrest in 1500. He was taken back to Spain in chains and stripped of his title of governor – but pardoned by King Ferdinand, who then subsidized his fourth voyage.

Although copious explorers had come and gone before Columbus, his legacy had massive impact, Tudor explains, because he was the first to stay. “He established slavery, genocide and conquest. Everyone else after him followed suit, inflicting the worst crimes and genocide in history.”

Reversing the trend

Nevertheless, the myth has been celebrated since 1792, when the Society of St. Tammany commemorated the 300th anniversary of Columbus’ landing. One hundred years later, President Benjamin Harrison issued a proclamation that established a celebration on the 400th anniversary of that fateful landing. While several states officially observed the date, it wasn’t until 1934 that it became a federal holiday.

Several Native American groups are dedicated to abolishing the national holiday that “celebrates the atrocities committed by Columbus” according to Abolish Columbus Day.

“It shouldn’t be a federal holiday,” Tudor agrees. She notes that the idea is gaining momentum as many cities and states rethink Columbus Day.

Only 24 states and the District of Columbia now observe the holiday, according to the Council of State Governments. Instead, many communities take the opportunity to honor the country’s indigenous peoples. In Hawaii, the holiday is known as Discoverers’ Day in honor of the Polynesian settlers who first populated the islands. In South Dakota, it’s known as Native Americans’ Day.

Berkeley, Calif., was the first American city to re-designate the day in 1992. After Northern Californian Native Americans brought an idea from the First Continental Conference on 500 Years of Indian Resistance in Quito, Ecuador (held in 1990) to the Berkeley City Council, a task force was appointed to investigate. Two years later, the council unanimously voted for Indigenous People’s Day.

This year, Seattle’s Mayor Ed Murray signed a proclamation recognizing Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Council member Kshama Sawant told The Seattle Times, “This is about taking a stand against racism and discrimination,” citing Columbus’ “pivotal role in the worst genocide humankind has ever known.”

Minneapolis followed suit by opting to celebrate Indigenous People’s Day in place of Columbus Day.

It’s not about retaliation or hatred. It’s about celebration and truth. “We have 364 days each yeah to fight against Columbus Day. On the 365th day, we celebrate all the Indigenous People of our planet,” proclaimed the Abolish Christopher Columbus Day group.

“Learning about the history of Columbus and transforming this day into a celebration of indigenous people and a celebration of social justice … allows us to make a connection between this painful history and the ongoing marginalization, discrimination and poverty that indigenous communities face to this day,” the Times quoted Sawant.

“I don’t want to instill a hatred of white people,” said Tudor, who homes-schools her children. Just as she hopes to educate the public about Columbus and raise awareness of the meaning behind this holiday, she wants to teach her children in the same analytical manner. “I want to tell them the truth in a matter-of-fact way, discuss it with them and let them think critically about it.”

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About The Author

Lori Lovely

Lori Lovely is a contributing freelance writer. Her passions include animal rights, Native American affairs and the Indianapolis 500.

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