Lakshmi: On the ills of Columbus Day

Sanjana Lakshmi, Columnist

There are only two specific people for whom the United States recognizes holidays: Martin Luther King, Jr. and Christopher Columbus. And there is a radical difference between a man who fought for the rights of his people and a man who “founded” a country based on genocide and violence. While Northwestern does not have a day off for Columbus Day, many schools and institutions around the United States celebrate it, and people all over the country still say “Happy Columbus Day” to their peers on the second Monday of October before heading off to malls for Columbus Day sales.

Recently, more and more attention is given to the fact that, while Columbus’ actions did ultimately lead to the foundation of the United States, he was a white supremacist who did not “discover” this land; he invaded it. Indigenous people have protested the holiday for years on end, starting in 1977 at the United Nations International Conference on Discrimination Against Indigenous Populations in the Americas. It was only recently that cities in the United States have been recognizing Columbus Day as “Indigenous People’s Day” instead. This began in Berkeley and South Dakota in the early 1990s, and now, at least nine cities do not acknowledge this date as Columbus Day any longer.

The rest of the United States needs to follow this pattern. This country’s history is consistently whitewashed, and the story of Columbus is no exception to this rule. Though more schools are bringing light to the fact that Columbus was not merely the great hero he was once accepted to be, I still remember being taught that he was a brave explorer who brought opportunity to this land. That is not the whole story: Columbus’ treatment of the native population at the time resulted in death and destruction, and it set a precedent for similar destruction of marginalized people’s lives throughout the United States’ history.

It is unfair and disrespectful to dedicate a day to a man who was at the forefront of such violence. We should instead be celebrating those who have been systematically disenfranchised and discriminated against by those who founded and ran the United States. The indigenous populations of the Americas deserve to be recognized for what they have been through. From football teams called the Redskins (which is considered a derogatory term) to continued fights for reparations and land rights to racism in popular culture and movies, the indigenous population of the United States continues to deal with marginalization. Voting booths are disproportionately far from Native American reservations, and many people do not have the means to reach polling stations. How are their voices supposed to be heard if we do not even give them the chance to try?

Columbus Day’s continued recognition as a federal holiday is an insult — not only because of Columbus’ violent actions, but also because of the challenges and discrimination that indigenous people face in the United States every day. The holiday’s existence says that this country does not care about Native Americans’ plight and does not want to take any steps to right the wrongs that are still occurring. While cities refusing to acknowledge the holiday is a step in the right direction, the United States needs to get rid of the holiday on a national level. By turning Columbus Day into Indigenous People’s Day, the United States will take some accountability for the damage that it has caused to this population.

Change is happening, but this year’s Columbus Day Parade in New York City still drew 1 million spectators. As students with influence on our peers and who will be gaining more and more influence as we grow older, we need to speak up about what this holiday symbolizes. Activism both on and off college campuses is growing, including campaigns that advocate #BlackLivesMatter and immigration reform. We need to add the rights of the indigenous population to this list, and that includes organizing against the existence of Columbus Day as a federal holiday.

Sanjana Lakshmi is a Weinberg junior. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].

The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.