Columbus Day: A Celebration of Genocide

By Alejandra Rodriguez

Date: 11/03/2023

Growing up in the United States, students are taught to celebrate the day Christopher Columbus “discovered” the Americas. The sanitized story of great exploration is marked as the start of a heroic and brave day in history, but this is white colonial history. In reality, that day marked the start of a historic tragedy. As young children, we were not taught of an estimated 56 million Native deaths, forced erasure of Indigenous culture, and the long lasting devastation that colonization has brought upon Indigenous People — still present in various ways to this day.

Despite this collective trauma, Columbus Day remains a legal federal holiday in the United States. Fortunately, there’s something you can do. Email your legislators and tell them to support the Indigenous Peoples’ Day Act! It’s time for the federal government to take a cue from the many states and municipalities which have rightfully replaced Columbus Day with Indigenous People's Day. Nobody should celebrate genocide. Passing this legislation will acknowledge, appreciate, and pay proper respect to the original peoples of this land.

We must take every step possible to honor Native cultures — and acknowledge the real history of Turtle Island. As stated by Lakota Law spokesperson and organizer Tokata Iron Eyes, “Replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day nationwide would be a symbolic but serious gesture, helping to offset some of the generational pain and trauma begun when Europeans invaded our homelands.”

Replacing the federally recognized Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day could signal a more comprehensive and honest reckoning with the collective history of the Americas, which were colonized based on European religious grounds. Christopher Columbus’s wrongdoings were enabled and fueled by the Doctrine of Discovery, a series of papal bulls from the Catholic Church which provided a framework for Christian explorers. Beginning in the 1100s, if explorers were to find a vacant land with non-Christians, they were politically, religiously, and legally justified to claim it as their own “discovery.” Because the Native people who already lived in the Americas were not Christian, they were seen as subhuman, and therefore explorers felt justified to take and conquer lands through inhumane means.

Despite its creation over 500 years ago, the Doctrine has shaped federal Indian law from the beginning until the present day. It was used by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1823 in Johnson and Graham's Lessee v. McIntosh, which was a land dispute. Thomas Johnson (one of the first U.S. Supreme Court justices) had purchased land from the Piankeshaw Tribe and left it to his heir once he passed. William McIntosh then purchased the land from the U.S. Congress, and Johnson’s heir sued over it. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of McIntosh, utilizing the Doctrine of Discovery to back the claim that the Piankeshaw Tribe did not have the right to convey the land, and therefore Johnson’s purchase was not valid. The Doctrine was also referenced as recently as 2005, when Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg cited it in her opinion to deny the Oneida Nation the right to regain their territory in so-called New York.

Now, as more and more people condemn the actions of Christopher Columbus and other Christian conquerors, the Doctrine of Discovery is also being condemned. As of March 2023, the Doctrine was officially denounced by Pope Francis, who said it “fails to recognize the inherent human rights of Indigenous Peoples.” In 2012, the United Nations called it “shameful,” as it encouraged “despicable assumptions” about Indigenous People. Merely a baseline of acknowledgement, this is nevertheless a step in the right direction. It’s vital that other institutions recognize the consequences of the Doctrine of Discovery and reassess the common portrayal of Christopher Columbus as an American hero. Susan C. Faircloth, an enrolled member of the Coharie Tribe of North Carolina and a professor of education at Colorado State University, explains this in an interview with USA News:

“Researchers have found that K-12 schools tend to teach about Native Americans as if they existed only in the past," she writes. "By revising the curriculum to better reflect both past and current histories and stories of Native Peoples, educators can more accurately teach students about their cultures, histories and traditions.”

The widespread introduction of Indigenous Peoples Day could be an excellent opportunity to stop the spread of sanitized history. The stories we are fed about our past and present begin at a young age, and by changing a single federal holiday, we can begin to change our perspectives on the dark history of colonial figures and more fully honor the collective continuance of the Indigenous Peoples who still exist in great numbers today. As major institutions around the world begin to understand that they have a simultaneous obligation to honor the ongoing culture of Indigenous Peoples and condemn the reprehensible imperial mindsets that led to tragedy, the United States must do the same. And it shouldn’t end there.

Honorata Defender, a citizen of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe who lives in so-called South Dakota, wrote a piece for North Star Magazine about how another day of remembrance — Native American Heritage Day — isn’t sufficient to remember the suffering and losses of Native Peoples: “We’ve come back from the brink of eradication, and we — the first people of this nation — were also the last to be considered American,” she says. “So while it’s a step in the right direction that our government has designated a day in our honor, it’s, quite frankly, not enough. We have much more work to do.”

The official recognition of Native holidays by 17 states sparks hope for a new movement of progress. Things like land acknowledgment and the establishment of federal holidays can sometimes seem performative, but they also begin the important conversations in which non-Native people must participate in the United States — and around the world. By opening these narrow doors, we can begin to make real progress and seek justice for Indigenous People across Turtle Island and beyond.

There is real action that can be taken to seek justice for Indigenous Peoples. Email your legislators and tell them to support the Indigenous Peoples’ Day Act! Passing this legislation will be key to demonstrating acknowledgment of and respect for Native Peoples — and it should be a stepping stone along the path to Indigenous justice on a border scale. It’s time to start acknowledging the truth.

Return to Blog