by Stephanie Hanson

Happy Indigenous Peoples Day! Or, as you might call it where you live, Columbus Day. 

Why are some areas changing the name of this federal holiday? Let’s take a closer look at Christopher Columbus and find out! 

When you were growing up, did you learn a poem about how “In fourteen hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue?” The poem goes on to describe the very nice Arawak natives and how Columbus was brave and bright. You might have learned that he was “brave and bright” because he believed the world was round when everyone else thought it was flat, and so he had the idea to sail west across the ocean to reach India.  Everyone told him he would sail off the end of the earth.  

Well, not exactly. 

You see, educated people at that time already knew the earth was a sphere. The ancient Greeks had figured that one out. The Greek mathematician Erastothenes had even calculated the circumference of the earth to within less than 50 miles. It was pretty clear that it was shorter to go across Europe and Asia than it was to sail the other way. So why did Columbus do it? Well, he thought Erastothenes had it wrong. Columbus figured the earth was actually much smaller, and pear-shaped. If he was right, he could just sail around the smaller part of the earth and discover a much quicker trade route.

Brave? Sure. Bright? You decide.  

How about those very nice natives? Well, he did in fact write home about how pleasant the people were and how easy they were to enslave. He got started right away, sending enslaved indigenous people back to Europe. In just eight years, he and his brother sold almost 1,500 Islanders across the Atlantic. He wasn’t kind to his own people either.  One Spanish woman reminded him that he was just the son of a weaver, so he had her tongue cut out. Ouch.  

But, he discovered America, right? Well, sort of. He died denying that he’d discovered a new continent. That’s why the United States isn’t on a continent called North Columbia. Amerigo Vespucci proved that these lands were actually previously unknown to Europeans and therefore got the credit. The Vikings had visited and stayed for a bit a few hundred years previously. And of course, millions of people already lived in the Americas.  

He IS an important historical figure. While he wasn’t the first person or even the first European to land on the shores of the New World, his arrival signaled the beginning of European conquest and changed the world forever.

For the Europeans, that was generally a good thing. 

For Indigenous nations, it marked the beginning of an apocalyptic age.

The Taino people who lived on an island called Hispaniola by the Spanish saw their population go from 400,000 to just 200 people within a single lifetime. Because of both the direct impact of Columbus’ policies and the indirect consequence of European conquest, many modern indigenous people have pushed to change the meaning of the second Monday in October. Instead of honoring this man, they want us to remember the people who have been here for thousands of years and live here still. All over the country, alternate celebrations now take place as cities or states make the switch from Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day.  

Click here for more on teaching about the Indigenous peoples of North America, perfect for Native American Heritage Month.

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