The Daily Northwestern

Bascom: America should reconsider Columbus Day

Jordan Bascom, Columnist

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Stores nationwide are celebrating Monday’s holiday in true American fashion: with a Columbus Day sale. This is great news! That means everything is free for the taking! Right?

Unfortunately not, much to my dismay, though such a sale would be a more fitting way to commemorate Mr. Columbus. Alas, the slashed prices invoke our nation’s “discoverer” in name only, an excuse to commercialize yet another of our sacrosanct holidays.

Somehow in our enlightened 21st century, we still have a national holiday recognizing the man who inaugurated our dark history of genocide and slavery. Was he also responsible for establishing channels of exchange that culminated in the founding of the United States? Sure. But it seems irresponsible to accord this man his own holiday while not having one to acknowledge the suffering engendered by his actions.

Columbus is one of only two people for whom calendar days are dedicated in the U.S., the other being Martin Luther King Jr. There is not, however, a holiday that specifically recognizes the Native Americans who lost their lives as a result of his actions. Thanksgiving is meant to honor the harvest, and in the U.S. it vaguely incorporates a historical component marking positive cultural exchange between the pilgrims and Native Americans. Veterans Day and Memorial Day are associated with respecting the dead, and the Fourth of July commemorates our country’s founding. So why do we have a day to recognize the first European to colonize America, but none for the people whose land we took and who paid the price for such with their lives?

Columbus Day first became a federal holiday in 1937 at the decree of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, though it was widely observed in an unofficial capacity long before then. The first celebration occurred in 1792, when New Yorkers honored the 300th anniversary of Columbus’ landing. Throughout the 19th century, the holiday continued to be marked, particularly by Italian-Americans and Catholics who celebrated it in homage to their heritage. For the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ arrival, President Benjamin Harrison encouraged Americans to again herald the occasion.

Today, the more disreputable side to Columbus — the side that enslaved and reportedly tortured native peoples in the Americas — is widely condemned, and isn’t overlooked in the classroom. There’s been growing backlash to the holiday’s name in recent years, and in some places people have taken it upon themselves to re-label the day.

Just this month, the Seattle City Council passed a resolution to celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day on the second Monday of October, rather than the federally recognized holiday. Instead of focusing the discussion on Columbus, Seattle will honor Native Americans, their culture and their contributions to the community. Earlier this year, Minneapolis adopted the same change, which was also made by Berkeley, California, in 1992. Several other states, such as Alaska, Oregon, South Dakota and Hawaii, also either offer refocused days of remembrance or do not observe the day at all.

Many celebrations of Columbus Day now commemorate Native Americans and acknowledge the atrocities of Columbus and our early history. But the fact that we recognize these under the auspices of a day named after the very individual who commenced their persecution is wrong.

We’ve detached our observance of the holiday too much from its original intent. Columbus Day can easily be valued by what its immediate effects are on our life. Who doesn’t want a day off of work or school, if you’re lucky, to go score some sweet savings at the mall, am I right?

The phrase, when resulting in such positive reinforcement, can become so devoid of meaning. Just look at the controversy surrounding the Washington, D.C., football team which goes by the “Redskins.” Thousands of fans defend the name, claiming it honors Native Americans. They are parading around a derogatory slur as a mascot. It’s hard to find any trace of commemoration or respect in this egregious act of appropriation.

We’re already in the process of shifting our understanding of Columbus Day to celebrate Native Americans, their culture and achievements and those who fell victim to American colonization. They deserve commemoration and they deserve a day of remembrance not named for their antagonist.

Jordan Bascom is a Weinberg senior. She can be reached at jordanbascom2015@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com.

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