The Columbian Question: A Call for a Plebiscite on Columbus Day

In 1994, Common Courage Press, a progressive publishing house dedicated to social justice and based out of the small town of Monroe, Maine, produced a manuscript entitled Indians Are Us?: Culture and Genocide in Native North America. The author of this text was none other than the Creek-Muskogee intellectual, political activist, and scholar, Ward LeRoy Churchill, who was at the time serving as the professor of ethnic studies at the University of Colorado Boulder. In the second chapter, entitled “Bringing the Law Back Home: Application of the Genocide Convention in the United States,” Churchill joined—and perhaps even surpassed—a growing number of journalists, scholars, activists, and citizens by emphatically calling for an end to the annual celebration of Columbus Day in America. “Undeniably,” Churchill wrote, “the situation of American Indians will not—in fact cannot—change for the better so long as such attitudes are deemed socially acceptable by the mainstream populace. Hence, such celebrations as Columbus Day must be stopped.”

Nowadays, there is perhaps no holiday in America culture more defined by ambivalence than Columbus Day. While most working professionals—particularly of the millennial generation—are happy enough getting a day off from work in October, no matter what the occasion, some are finding it harder and harder to memorialize the “Admiral of the Ocean” without feelings of cynicism. These people may not go as far as to agree with scholars like Ward Churchill, or the American historian Alfred W. Crosby—who ended his groundbreaking book The Columbian Exchange (1972) on an extremely pessimistic note about the consequences of European discovery—but most of them harbor at least a vague understanding that the century following European arrival in the Americas is not an historical period with which to be particularly proud or patriotic. At the same time, critics recognize that there is something undeniably important about remembering the pivotal, historical changes that occurred during this period.

The modern dilemma of Columbus Day is partly attached to the atrocities that its namesake and his companions inflicted upon the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean. Indeed, some people know about the 48-page report by Francisco de Bobadilla, the governor of the island of Hispaniola after Columbus, from 1500-1502. Testimonies in this report indicate that Columbus faced serious indictments for torturing, mutilating, and enslaving the indigenous population, most notably the Lucayan people of present-day Bahamas and the Taíno people of present-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

Among other things, these reports state that Columbus suppressed numerous indigenous revolts, afterward reaffirming his authority by parading dismembered bodies through the street, cutting off noses, shipping natives to the Iberian peninsula in shackles (most of them dying en route), and generally instituting one of the most brutal systems of forced labor that history would ever bear witness to. Since the rediscovery of this specific report in the Spanish archives, a series of short, History-channel documentaries, collectively entitled the “Columbus Controversy,” has attempted to integrate these atrocities into our general understanding of the famous and infamous conquistador.

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