The Debate Over Columbus Day

Oct 9, 2017 By Deepa Gopal
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Why are New York city cops guarding the statue of Christopher Columbus in Midtown, Manhattan 24/7?

In recent months, statues of the explorer have been smeared with red paint or pink nail polish, while others have had graffiti scribbled across them. With the U.S marking Columbus Day on Oct 9, city officials are trying to prevent other such acts. 

Meanwhile, from Seattle to San Francisco, and Los Angeles to Austin -- many U.S cities have been renaming Columbus Day to Indigenous (or Native) People's Day. This has upset some Italian-American groups. Who was Columbus and why is he sparking such a divisive debate? 

When Columbus Sailed West

In 1492, Christopher Columbus set sail from Spain on a quest to find a westerly route to India, the land of spices and gold.  Barely three weeks into his voyage, his fleet sighted land and came upon areas that appeared similar to India in treasures.

However, he had arrived at a new land and was off from his destination by a really large margin. You see, Columbus and his men had arrived in the West Indies! Over three more such expeditions, Columbus reached the island of Hispaniola (present-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic), and Central and South America. These were lands that were unknown to Europeans, but had been occupied for several centuries by Native Americans and the thriving civilizations of the Mayas, Incas, and Aztecs. 

Over the next two centuries, settlers from Spain, Portugal, France, and England arrived and started building colonies. The natives were forced out of their lands to remote areas, enslaved or killed if they fought back, and forcibly converted to Christianity. Their population decreased drastically (by 80-90%) because of exposure to diseases like smallpox and measles brought by the settlers. 

The Debate Over Columbus Day

Today, native people living on reservations face poverty and lack education, healthcare and employment opportunities. The rates of alcoholism, depression, and violence are quite high in these communities.

Native American groups oppose Columbus day and parades such as the one in New York City, honoring a man who promoted colonization and exploitation of indigenous people. In 1992, Berkeley became the first city to replace Columbus Day with a celebration of Native American heritage. Now, more cities have joined in on the movement. 

However, there is one group that is unhappy. Some Italian-Americans see Columbus Day as a celebration of their heritage. They claim that many Italians had a difficult time when they migrated to America. But as they began to connect themselves to Columbus who was an Italian, it helped them gain acceptance. In fact, an Italian-American businessman named Generoso Pope played a part in getting Columbus Day recognized as a federal holiday in 1937. 

Finally, there are others who don't understand the fuss about Columbus. Not only did he sail for the Spanish, Columbus did not reach mainland United States on any of his voyages. In fact, it was John Cabot who landed in Newfoundland and took the territory in England's name.

What do you think? Should Columbus Day be renamed Indigenous People Day?