Oct. 12 marks the federal holiday of Columbus Day — or, if you live in jurisdictions like the District of Columbia, Indigenous Peoples Day. The debate over honoring Christopher Columbus as a consequential historical figure, vs. decrying Columbus as a driving force behind the genocide of Native Americans and transatlantic slavery, returned to Philadelphia this year. The city’s Art Commission voted in August to remove the Columbus statue from Marconi Plaza following protests and conflict at the site, including weapon-carrying vigilantes who claimed to be protecting the statue in June.
While Columbus Day remains a holiday in Philly, the debate rages on. The Inquirer asked a founding board member of Indigenous Peoples’ Day Philly Inc. and a Philadelphian invested in the tradition: Is it time to drop Columbus Day?
By Trinity Norwood
Columbus Day idealizes a murderer who got lost during his expedition and minimizes the negative effects of colonialism on America’s Indigenous peoples. In the same way Germany does not have a national holiday or statues to memorialize Hitler because of his deplorable actions against humanity, Christopher Columbus should not be celebrated either.
To list all the crimes Columbus was directly a part of, supported, or sparked would take much longer than an op-ed, but the evidence we have against this man and his views of Indigenous people should be damning enough for our society to have a sense of shame over that part of our history. Yet still, we have a national holiday dedicated to him.
As a society, we recognize that slavery and genocide are terrible, yet we still celebrate the perpetrators of the events within our own history. If someone murdered, mutilated, and sold your loved ones into rape and slavery, how would you feel about the rest of your country celebrating one of their accidental accomplishments? (Because remember — reaching the Americas was never Columbus’ goal. He thought he was in Asia.)
I don’t believe we should erase Columbus, but what should be taught is what actually happened on his journey. Columbus had a contract with the Spanish monarchy to pillage the Indies and keep a percentage for himself. When he landed in the Caribbean, not only did he have no idea where he was, the Indigenous people had to help him and his crew. Then after their acts of generosity and kindness, he systematically enslaved and murdered Native people.
Moreover, it is widely believed that Columbus wasn’t even the first European to visit the Americas. That title belongs to the Viking explorer Leif Eriksson, who is thought to have landed almost five centuries before Columbus set sail. Besides, the notion that Europeans have any claim to “discovery” of this land is ridiculous, given that Indigenous civilizations already existed in the Americas. So, what exactly are we celebrating on Columbus Day?
To my Italian American friends who feel that removing Columbus Day ignores their history in this country, I leave you with this: Columbus never stepped foot in what is now the continental United States, so he is not part of any North American heritage. And most importantly, there are plenty of other Italian Americans to be proud of and celebrate, like Nobel Prize-winning physicist Enrico Fermi, or the great humanitarian Mother Frances Cabrini. As a country, we should be celebrating that Columbus did not accomplish his main objective: eradicating the Indigenous peoples of this continent. Although he tried, Indigenous people not only survived but are powerful and vibrant. We should be celebrating Indigenous Peoples Day and the powerful notion that even through colonization, genocide, boarding schools, and biochemical warfare: We are still here.
Let’s stop rewriting history to make ourselves feel good. It’s time to acknowledge the faults of those who came before us, seek reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, and once true healing begins, the “good” feeling we can all share will be genuine — and you can still enjoy super sales in October, even if Columbus’ name isn’t attached to it.
Trinity Norwood is the director of the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Tribal Nation’s “Royalty Program” and founding board member of Indigenous Peoples’ Day Philly Inc.
By Christopher Tremoglie
Columbus Day will be dramatically different in Philadelphia this year. The restrictions associated with the COVID-19 pandemic have canceled any large parades, and that means no Columbus Day Parade down Broad Street. Additionally, over the summer, there were attacks to discredit Columbus’ legacy in American history. This has left many to wonder: Should Philadelphia celebrate Columbus Day? The answer to that is a resounding yes.
Why? Because Columbus changed the world forever. Columbus’ voyage to America “was the most significant thing to ever happen in our species,” astrophysicist and public commentator Neil deGrasse Tyson said. Such a feat is worthy of celebrating.
Columbus’ accomplishments for human civilization are undeniable. He introduced the concept of reaching the east by going west. He made known to Europe the existence of the North and South American continents and laid the groundwork for future explorers. As such, this exploration “demonstrated the incompleteness” of the theories and geography of his contemporaries, as multiple scholars have noted, challenged the intellectual climate at the time, and helped pave the way for a heliocentric model of the universe. Columbus’ journey facilitated an immeasurable social, economic, and political change in the world.
Additionally, Columbus Day is of cultural significance to Italian Americans. After the largest mass lynching in U.S. history — of 11 Italian immigrants — occurred in 1891, President Benjamin Harrison announced Columbus would be celebrated the following year in 1892 to honor those murdered. The National Italian American Foundation has stated that Columbus Day provides a “sense of dignity and self-worth in light of the hostility and discrimination many Italian immigrants, Italians Americans, and Catholics (more broadly) faced.” The day has taken on symbolism that is bigger than Columbus himself.
For the past few years, left-wing activists have been vandalizing Columbus statues, claiming the statues celebrate the genocide of Indigenous people. In June, protesters in Philadelphia marched against our city’s Columbus statue. Nationally, protest groups vandalized or toppled Columbus statues in Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, and Miami, among other cities, often with red paint and graffiti.
But the history of humanity is one of conquest and a clash of civilizations. Columbus arrived in a New World already marked by violence. As he wrote in his journal upon arriving into the New World: “I saw some with scars of wounds upon their bodies … that there came people from the other islands in the neighborhood who endeavored to make prisoners of them, and they defended themselves.” Archaeological research indicates that some North American tribes had a culture of violence predicated on acquiring territory and “destroying enemy populations … accompanied by mutilation of the bodies of the vanquished” that existed for hundreds of years before Europeans arrived. The scrutiny applied to violent behavior from Columbus and his crew should be applied to other inhabitants of the Americas, with the recognition that history — and its most impactful figures — is widely complicated.
Judging Columbus through the supercilious goggles of social justice advocates in the 21st century is an unfair practice. Judging Columbus’ actions through civilization in the 15th century, however, is a more truthful and pedagogical pursuit. The spirit of exploration he has come to stand for warrants celebration. His legacy — positive and negative — warrants recognition.
Christopher Tremoglie attends the University of Pennsylvania, double majoring in political science and Russian and East European studies, and is an intern with the National Columbus Education Foundation. firstname.lastname@example.org @cwtremo