In 1937, Franklin Delano Roosevelt officially designated “Columbus Day” as a federal holiday. It commemorates the 1492 arrival of Italian explorer, Christopher Columbus, in the Americas. The colonial and imperialist elements of Columbus’ voyage, however, have made the holiday perennially controversial.

Columbus and the Europeans who followed him brought diseases that ravaged the existing population, they violently confiscated vast swaths of land, and exploited Native American and African labor to enrich themselves and their European nations. Along with exploitative commerce, plagues of illness, and bloody wars, Columbus and his fellow Europeans also imported their ideas of racial superiority into relationships with Native Americans.

Columbus’ Journal Entries

Columbus kept a journal of his travels and his impressions of the “New World.” An entry from October, 1492, just after his arrival in the Americas, reveals his racist and paternalistic views of Native Americans.

It appeared to me to be a race of people very poor in everything. They go as naked as when their mothers bore them, and so do the women, although I did not see more than one young girl. All I saw were youths, none more than thirty years of age. They are very well made, with very handsome bodies, and very good countenances. Their hair is short and coarse, almost like the hairs of a horse’s tail. They wear the hairs brought down to the eyebrows, except a few locks behind, which they wear long and never cut. They paint themselves black, and they are the color of the Canarians, neither black nor white.

While describing the physical appearance of a group does not necessarily indicate racism, Columbus’ description reveals a superficial understanding of a sophisticated people. He thought that their lack of clothing meant they were poor. Earlier in the entry he remarked at how easily he traded trinkets such as glass beads “and many other things of little value, which gave them great pleasure, and made them so much our friends that it was a marvel to see.” Columbus thought that the Native Americans he encountered were unintelligent and easily amused. These notions led to a sense of paternalism and the idea that the original inhabitants of the land somehow needed Europeans to improve their lives.

Columbus continued…

“They should be good servants and intelligent, for I observed that they quickly took in what was said to them, and I believe that they would easily be made Christians, as it appeared to me that they had no religion”

From the earliest days of European contact in the Americas, race and religion were intertwined. Columbus believed that Native Americans would make good servants because they seemed to grasp new information quickly. Apparently, it did not occur to him that Native Americans could do far more than serve Europeans nor that they might not have any interest in doing so. Furthermore, Columbus insulted Native Americans by presuming that because they did not practice Christianity, they had no religion whatsoever. He ignored the sophisticated cosmology of the people he encountered and assumed they were ignorant of religion altogether.

Finally Columbus wrote…

These people are very simple as regards the of arms, as your Highnesses will .sec [sic] from the seven that I caused to be taken, to bring home and learn our language and return; unless your Highnesses should order them all to be brought to Castile, or to be kept as captives on the same island; for with fifty men they can all be subjugated and made to do what is required of them…

As Columbus encountered the original inhabitants of the Americas, he evaluated them primarily based on their usefulness to Europeans. Since they utilized simple weapons, Columbus presumed that they could be easily subdued through violence. He intended to bring seven Native Americans back with him to Italy in order to learn the language of Europeans. Unless, of course, the king would simply rather hold them as captives and so they could be “subjugated and made to do what is required of them.” In other words, Columbus left the door open for his Italian patron to decree that Native Americans be made slaves and forced to work for their European enslavers.

Honoring America’s First Inhabitants

Columbus’ journal entries regarding Native Americans reveal the racism and paternalism that accompanied European contact with the Americas. Many Europeans looked at darker-skinned people as inferior in all kinds of ways—militarily, culturally, and religiously. They arrived in the Americas with the objective of extracting resources to enrich their home countries. They looked at the original inhabitants of the land through this prism as well. Columbus evaluated the people for their potential as laborers and considered them empty vessels to receive the language, culture, and Christianity of nations in Europe.

Thus, Columbus Day remains a source of controversy. Should present-day Americans honor a man who harbored such harmful ideas about other human beings? How much should citizens praise a man whose arrival meant the theft of land from Native American tribes, land that still has not been restored to the original owners? How much do Americans living now owe Native Americans for the atrocities that followed along with Columbus’ arrival in 1492?

As some states have already done, Columbus Day should be recast as an opportunity to recognize the indigenous inhabitants of the land the became known as America. The culture, language, traditions, and resilience of Native Americans should gain a place of prominence in the nation’s annual commemorations. No one can do anything about the harmful ideas Columbus expressed about Native Americans in 1492, but it is entirely possible to celebrate and honor the nation’s original inhabitants today.

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