Today, in the United States and across Central and South America, people will be celebrating the anniversary of the arrival of Christopher Columbus to the Americas on this day in 1492. Columbus Day officially became a federal holiday in the United States in 1937, but has been celebrated unofficially since the late 18th century.
With any national holiday we have to ask the Who?, How?, and Why? behind its history. Without any context, Columbus Day can seem to harmlessly celebrate the exciting chapter in the history of the world when Old met New.
Check out this video to get an idea of how the story is told in an ‘educational’ context to teach children about the history of their nation:
According to that video at least, the meeting between the Old World and the New World was quite lovely…
What this does, however, is validate and perpetuate the idea that the indigenous peoples of the Americas were lucky to be ‘discovered’; that they should be grateful for the enlightenment of the conquistadores, who brought them their own version of ‘civilisation’: including their religion, their weapons, and their greed for gold.
However, Columbus’ arrival was not something to be celebrated for vast numbers of indigenous peoples of the Americas. In 2000, The American Indian Movement stated this clearly, declaring that Columbus began an “American holocaust, [with] ethnic cleansing characterized by murder, torture, raping, pillaging, robbery, slavery, kidnapping, and forced removals of Indian people from their homelands.”
With this in mind, some places have chosen to rename and rededicate this national holiday as a celebration of the indigenous peoples of the Americas instead of celebrating the man who destroyed their great civilisations. So, for example, the cities of Berkeley (CA) and Seattle (WA) have changed the October 12th holiday to ‘Indigenous Peoples’ Day’, and Venezuela and Nicaragua changed the festival to the Día de la Resistencia Indígena (Day of Indigenous Resistance).
As Chicano scholar and activist Rodolfo F. Acuña states, “celebrating El Día de la Raza is not an innocuous act. Holidays are important in forming approved memories. Identity is formed by culture that in turn shapes our behavior, beliefs and cultural narratives. Holidays are part of our memory and form our narratives.” Instead of celebrating Día de la Raza as another version of Columbus Day, it can be brought back to its raíces (roots) and be a Day of the People(s) by those who acknowledge and celebrate the voices of the indigenous peoples in the history of the Americas.
We always need to ask questions of holidays like Columbus Day. It’s a chance to interrogate not only the story of Columbus, but also re-evaluate how we think of history: who it belongs to, who tells it, and how it is circulated. Also, with particular regard to commemoration, we need to think about the power dynamics involved in the dedication of federal and state holidays and the ways in which history can be used as propaganda. Questions like these help us listen for the silenced voices of history, to learn from them and reconsider our own ways of thinking.
It certainly makes me reflect on these big ideas – let us know what you think by writing in the comments below. Also, if you’re interested in learning more about pre-Columbian civilisations of the Americas then check out the BBC’s latest documentary: Lost Kingdoms of Central America.
Also, check out The Oatmeal’s take on the whole thing: http://theoatmeal.com/comics/columbus_day
 Charles Speroni, “The Development of the Columbus Day Pageant of San Francisco,” Western Folklore (1948)