In Honor of Indigenous People: Why ‘Columbus Day’ must be replaced (2021)

In Honor of Indigenous People
Why ‘Columbus Day’ must be replaced


What’s wrong with “Columbus Day”?

Honoring Christopher Columbus through a national holiday celebrates the legacy of genocide of indigenous peoples on three continents – North America, South America, and Africa – as well as genocide of indigenous people of the Caribbean. In the United States, the observance of “Columbus Day” perpetuates racism and religious bigotry toward indigenous people; this harm is ongoing and real, and its effects can be felt among Native children and non-Native children alike.


Celebrating “Columbus Day” perpetuates the myth that the Americas were empty and simply waiting to be ‘discovered’ by Europeans. This narrative intentionally ignores the immense suffering of millions of indigenous peoples who were enslaved, raped and murdered by European colonists, and belies our heroic resistance to imperialism.

A true and accurate account of indigenous people, which began long before Christopher Columbus set sail, is necessary to set straight the historical record, and to show respect for the traditional cultures, languages, and spiritualities of indigenous peoples.

Modern historians recognize that Columbus’s policies – policies which included forced labor, slaughter and starvation – resulted in the near-complete genocide of the indigenous peoples of Hispañiola (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic); these policies set the standard of interaction between European colonizers and indigenous peoples in the Americas for hundreds of years.

Between 1492 and 1504, Christopher Columbus is estimated to have shipped 5,000 enslaved Natives across the Atlantic to Europe – setting the stage for the Trans-Atlantic slave trade – while thousands more were enslaved in their homelands. Within only two years of Columbus’s landfall in Hispañiola, 125,000 Natives died from the exhaustion of forced labor in his gold mines. Within twenty-five years the majority of the Lucayans, Taínos and Arawaks – the indigenous population – had died either from enslavement, massacre, torture, starvation, or disease.

Columbus permitted and supervised the selling of indigenous women and young girls into sexual slavery, noting that girls aged nine or ten were the most desirable.

Columbus had Natives hunted down with dogs that tore them limb from limb. When his men ran short of dog food, Arawak babies were devoured instead. Columbus permitted his men test the sharpness of their blades by cutting off the legs of Native children; they often made bets as to who could cut an indigenous person in half with one blow.

Even in his own day, Columbus’s brutality was infamous. He was arrested and shipped to Spain for crimes against humanity. Why then do we continue to celebrate Columbus, a man who would certainly receive the Death Penalty for his crimes if he were alive today?

Why celebrate “Indigenous Peoples’ Day”?

It is a matter of respect. Indigenous people worldwide, not just in the Americas, have been asking for change for several decades. It is time to join other cities and states who stand in solidarity with indigenous peoples. “Indigenous Peoples’ Day” recognizes and celebrates the heritage of indigenous peoples from throughout the Americas and elsewhere, as well as the history and contribution of Native people in our local region.

It is a matter of awareness. Many non-Native people continue to have the mistaken belief that Native people are extinct, or that Native peoples all live on reservations far removed from society even though more than 75% of us in the United States live in urban areas. “Indigenous Peoples’ Day” creates a space for public awareness of the modern-day presence of Native people in the community.

It is a matter of justice. By transitioning from “Columbus Day” to “Indigenous Peoples’ Day” we recognize not only the historic impact that the arrival in the Americas of Columbus and other European imperialists had on indigenous peoples, but also the continuing trauma which still impacts Native peoples today.

What challenges do indigenous peoples face today?

In the United States, Native people represent 1% of the population, yet nationally we have disproportionately higher rates of poverty, unemployment, incarceration and police brutality. Nationally, Native people are 38% more likely to be incarcerated than the general population, and are more likely than any other ethnic group to be killed by police according to the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, we are twice as likely to be assaulted by a person of another ethnicity than the next highest ethnic group facing assault.

Violence and assault of Native women are common, while ¹/₃ of Native women report having been raped in her lifetime. In the United States, Canada, and Mexico, indigenous women and girls have a disproportionately high rate of murder and disappearance.

Native youth have the highest suicide rate in the United States – more than three times the national average. Nationally, Native youth have the highest drop-out rates; more than ¹/₃ of Native students will not complete high school. Native students are also disproportionately disciplined, suspended and expelled from school.

Native people have a shorter life expectancy than the rest of the population partly because of less access to quality health care and inadequate funding for health programs.

Up until the 1980s and 1990s, thousands of Native children in the United States and Canada were removed from their families and sent to “Indian Boarding Schools” where they were forced to conform to European standards of living. In these institutions, punishment often included beatings, psychological and sexual abuse, and sometime death for infractions such as speaking our own indigenous language. Native families individually and tribal communities in general suffer inter-generational trauma as a result of this removal and abuse.

Indigenous people are virtually erased in mainstream media, government statistics, and in many discussions of activism and systemic racism. Furthermore, discussions of religious bigotry and its effects on indigenous people are almost non-existent.

Native peoples continue to be subject to multiple racial stereotypes and slurs, including exploitation and racism as objects of sports team names and mascots. For Natives who do not “look Indian”, they bear the additional burden of having their indigenous identities challenged and often derided, and their authentic indigenous experiences discounted as illegitimate.