How To Reinvent Columbus Day

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The movement to rename Columbus Day as Indigenous Peoples’ Day has taken on renewed steam this year, with a number of cities across the country adopting the new name for the controversial October holiday. The shift makes sense, not just because of the horrors that Columbus helped usher into the Americas (and that he personally supported in many cases), but also because of the thorough absence of Native Americans from our roster of national holidays. If it takes renaming an existing federal holiday to bring Native Americans into those collective American conversations (where, inarguably, they have played a more central role than an Italian explorer sailing for Spain who never set foot on what would become the United States), that seems a more-than-worthwhile step.

Yet at the same time, before we move away from Columbus Day we can and should better engage with a number of telling historical contexts for the holiday, each of which can help connect us to forgotten American histories. For example, while some of us know about the role Italian Americans played in the holiday’s late-19th century growth, there’s virtually no collective memory of the historical event that most contributed to that trend. That would be the 1891 lynching of 11 Sicilian immigrants in New Orleans, triggered by the killing of the city’s police commissioner (a crime for which all 11 men had been found innocent). President Benjamin Harrison’s 1892 call for a national observance of Columbus Day, while connected to the 400th anniversary of the explorer’s first voyage, was also a rebuttal to this act of mob violence and the anti-Italian sentiments it reflected.

Remembering the histories of Columbus Day not only connects us to such forgotten events, but also shows us how our collective mythos of the explorer has developed alongside our national identity. In order to get to the point of naming an official national holiday after Columbus, another American history first had to unfold: the gradual mythologizing of Columbus, both as the “discoverer” of the new world and as a beneficent patron of all its peoples. That process began around the time of the American Revolution, when the concept of the new nation as “Columbia” truly took shape. In works like poet and minister Joel Barlow’s bestselling epic The Vision of Columbus (1787), later revised as The Columbiad (1807), the explorer became the symbol for that idealized image of the United States. And in his hugely popular fictionalized biography A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus (1828), American mythmaker par excellence Washington Irving cemented both the links between Columbus and America and the images of the explorer as a friend to Native Americans (among many other striking inaccuracies).

If we can remember each of these stages in the move toward Columbus Day, we can engage with the broader American histories and narratives to which they connect. Similarly, if we keep talking about renaming the holiday, alongside continued efforts to commemorate indigenous peoples, we have the chance to include other figures from the age of exploration—European arrivals who offer far different images of that period than Columbus.

Among scholars and students of American history, the the figure to commemorate would be Bartolomé de las Casas, the Spanish diplomat-turned-priest who accompanied Columbus and other explorers to the Americas but who became over time both a vocal opponent of the European treatment of indigenous peoples and an advocate for those peoples’ rights and voices. In works such as his seminal Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies (1552), las Casas documented, fiercely critiqued and challenged European practices of enslavement, exploitation and genocide, offering a vital alternative narrative not only of the exploration era, but of European perspectives in and on that initial post-contact period.

There’s another Spanish explorer who would offer an equally complex challenge to and expansion of our collective memory: Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca. Arriving in the Americas as an officer on an ill-fated 1527 Spanish expedition to Florida, de Vaca found himself shipwrecked, separated from his peers, and captive to local tribes. Over the nearly-ten-year journey that followed, as he would document in a Narrative (1542) prepared for the Spanish monarch, de Vaca traveled the length of the continent, moving between numerous native peoples, living and working with them, and taking on multiple roles and identities within those communities before finally reconnecting with a Spanish expedition in the Pacific coastal region that would become known as Baja California.

Although de Vaca returned to Spain to write his Narrative, that text reflects just how much his identity and perspective had shifted over the course of his journey. Indeed, in the book’s climax de Vaca finds himself not only translating between the Spanish expedition and the native peoples with whom he is traveling, but defending those native communities against the enslavement at the hands of the Spanish. Meanwhile, his native allies defend him against the Spanish leaders’ charges that he is a powerless soldier who should simply follow their orders.

In cross-cultural moments like these, de Vaca and las Casas show us an American perspective and identity far more inspiring than that of Columbus. Such alternative figures and voices could bring together cultures in much the same way a reframed Columbus Day might, commemorating both the indigenous peoples so central to our histories and those Europeans who even in our earliest post-contact moments recognized and responded to that centrality.

Lead art: Spanish genocide against the population of present-day Haiti and Dominican Republic, as illustrated by Bartolome de las Casas.

Ben Railton is an Associate Professor of English and American Studies at Fitchburg State University and a member of the Scholars Strategy Network.

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