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Revisiting Columbus Day 

People stir. Somewhere a baby cries. The smells of cook fires fill the air.

It's almost dawn.

It's the last peaceful morning the Arawak people of the eastern seaboard will know. When the sun rises, they will find an enormous boat floating offshore. Onboard are the strangest men they have ever seen.

In awe, the Arawak will offer the strange men gifts -- cane spears, balls of dyed cotton yarn, birds, gold ear ornaments.

Their openness and generosity will prompt the leader of the strangers to write:

They willingly traded everything they owned ... They were well-built with good and handsome features ... They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance ... They would make fine servants ... With 50 men, we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.

Within the span of three generations, the Arawak people would be annihilated, down to the last man, woman and child.

Rather than remembering the generous Arawak, or the countless other indigenous peoples who have suffered enslavement and genocide at the hands of Europeans, the United States chooses to celebrate the man who wrote those words -- Christopher Columbus.

Largely forgotten until 1892, Columbus as we know him is a modern invention; he was lifted out of the dustbin of history and cleaned up to serve as a symbol of the United States' attainment of Manifest Destiny.

"A lot of people think Columbus Day has been a holiday since God was a child," said Glenn Morris, a member of the leadership council of the American Indian Movement of Colorado.

But Columbus Day is relatively new. The holiday actually has its roots in Southern Colorado -- the day honoring Columbus started in Pueblo in 1905. It wasn't until 1971 that Columbus Day was recognized nationally as a federal holiday, as the myth of Columbus was passed on to a new generation. (Monday, Oct. 8, marked this year's official Columbus Day.)

According to the myth, Columbus set sail to prove the Earth was round or to find a trade route to the East. A visionary, he went against the common sense of his era and braved both stormy seas and a restless crew to become the discoverer of a new continent. The story of Columbus as taught in U.S. schools usually ends there.

The real Columbus was a former African-slave trader who set sail to enrich himself. Guaranteed 10 percent of the profits of his voyage and the governorship of any newfound lands, Columbus sailed west to find a new route to Asia.

He wasn't the first European to arrive in the Americas -- the Vikings beat him to it by about 500 years.

Nor was Columbus the first to realize the importance of what he'd blundered into. Long after most of his contemporaries understood he had located a previously unknown continent, Columbus was still insisting he'd discovered islands off the coast of Asia.

While concealing Columbus' ignorance and arrogance is a disservice to American school children, denying what came next is a grave injustice to humanity.

Bartolom de Las Casas, a Spanish priest who at first participated in, then opposed, the subjugation of indigenous people, recorded in detail Columbus' treatment of Native people.

"Our work was to exasperate, ravage, kill, mangle and destroy; small wonder, then, if they tried to kill one of us now and then," Las Casas writes.

Columbus used an attempted rebellion as justification to enslave the Indians. He forced all male Arawak over the age of 14 to pan the rivers for gold. Those who failed to produce the necessary quota were punished, sometimes by having their hands cut off. With Columbus as the example, slavery, brutality and genocide became the preferred European method for interacting with Native people.

In the end more than 150 million human beings would perish, the largest genocide in human history. Teaching this in the classroom, however, would mean acknowledging the United States' own brutal treatment of indigenous people, something we seem reluctant to do. Rarely able to acknowledge our own atrocities, we continue to promulgate lies to hide the fact we live in a stolen land.

Last Saturday, more than 2,000 people of all races and backgrounds marched together in Denver to provide an alternative vision for celebration.

Their goal is to transform Columbus Day into a day of ethnic unity for all people and remembrance for the victims of European colonialism.

Let us hope their vision prevails. For his cruelty, for his greed, for his barbarism, Columbus deserves nothing from us but contempt.

Pamela White is a regular contributor to the Independent. To learn more, go online to
www.transformcolumbusday.org

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