Fall is an interesting time on campuses around the country. Freshmen are settling into their routines, sophomores are adjusting to the reality that they are no longer the new kids on campus, juniors are scrambling to ensure they are on track to graduation, and seniors are trying to come up with an answer to the question, “what am I going to do after graduation?” As the leaves change color and midterms increase the anxiety level, it is also time to start to prepare for that day; the one comes every year, and the one that justifies calling in ill to avoid it- Columbus Day. Yes, it is still referred to as Columbus Day on some academic calendars even though the trend is to change the name to Indigenous Peoples Day. As with all Mondays, it does not rank high in days of the week but with the addition of the meaning attached to it a day in bed eating Oreos would be more meaningful.
Why all the gloom around a day that celebrates a man who would not ask for directions? Because it is a day that commemorates the exportation of genocide to the Western Hemisphere - a fact not on display in the parades, or school plays that occur around the country. The celebrations around the historical significance of Columbus’ voyage fail to acknowledge that he brought with him the Inquisition from Spain and unleashed it on the Indigenous populations of what is now known as the Bahamas and the rest of the Western Hemisphere. Dressing up in period costumes to sail in prop boats in an effort to find a water passage to India, only to ‘discover’ a ‘new world’ and claim it in the name of King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella ignores the underlying perpetration of crimes against humanity for economic gain that took place. Instead of embracing a holistic understanding and portrayal of the events that unfolded with the first European footsteps in the Western Hemisphere the celebrations serve as a mechanism to deny the atrocities that took place clouding the accuracy of the historical record and the half-truths that make the Age of Discovery palatable to the young and old.
Students across the country will spend the early morning hours of Columbus Day posting signs, writing messages in chalk and preparing for a week of events meant to change the narrative and initiate a dialogue on the historical and contemporary status of Indigenous people. Born out of the response to celebrations of the quincentennial in 1992, cities and campuses around the country began to change the name of the day on their calendars to Indigenous Peoples Day and Week. The dedication of the day and week to acknowledging the Indigenous people who have called this hemisphere home since time immemorial provides for the reexamination of the context of what has been taught about Indigenous peoples and the Age of Discovery, and to acknowledge that Indigenous peoples are still here not relegated to yellowed pages of the historical record. Even in this approach the atrocities inflicted on Indigenous peoples as a result of Columbus’ voyage is often given minimal attention or is left to wanted posters calling for Columbus to be prosecuted for the crime of genocide.
What will be gained by talking about the Age of Discovery and Columbus in the context of genocide? For non-Indigenous peoples, it opens the door to a larger conversation about colonization its impacts on populations around the world and its present-day legacy in countries which are categorized as underdeveloped or developing and not part of the developed world. For Indigenous peoples, it provides an acknowledgment that atrocities were committed which are still felt by the descendants and communities that survived and it provides the opportunity to address the historical trauma that has been compounded by the actions of corporations and governments around the world by their failure to engage with and respect for Indigenous communities. Engaging in dialogues that critically analyze the mythical origins of the Western Hemisphere along with the ramifications of the events that supported the creation of the current geopolitical structure serves as a mechanism to gain understanding not only how present societal rifts emerged it also brings awareness to situations and events today that could take the same path. By talking about the historical impetus of genocide an opportunity for education and prevention of current and future genocies may emerge. Acknowledging and addressing historical culpability and trauma lays the foundations for discussions and collaborations rooted in a mutual understanding of the past to provide the trust that is needed to avert such atrocities from occurring again.
As the students across the country listen to lecturers on the significance of Columbus and the impacts of his voyage on Indigenous peoples, they are going to confront the disconnect between what they learned in elementary, middle school and high school with what they are learning in their institutions of higher education. Inevitably they will ask, why their teachers lied to them, when they may not have been lied to at all. They were taught what the teacher had been taught and ere comfortable with teaching, not what they did not know or chose to explore. Questioning the status quo of knowledge is an exercise that should be engaged in by every individual to help push the back the fog of popular history to unveil a more accurate and holistic understanding of the past. What better way to start the active interrogation of history than on a day that commemorates an event that changed the course of human history? Because no matter what the day is called, it is only another day. It is a day that intentional decisions can be made in how individuals, communities, and nations discuss their origin and how that impacted other people.
About the Author:
Kerri J. Malloy (Yurok/Karuk) is a Lecturer in the Department of Native American Studies at Humboldt State University where he teaches in the Law and Government pathway of the degree program. He received his Masters of Jurisprudence in Indian Law from The University of Tulsa College of Law. He is currently a student in the Ph.D. in Holocaust and Genocide Studies program at Gratz College.