By William Howe '21
As Columbus Day approaches, the annual national discussion around the holiday has just about reached its peak. People have long debated whether the second Monday in October should pay homage to the eponymous explorer, or honor those living in the lands he traversed. In fact, many states have already renamed the occasion to “Indigenous Peoples’ Day” or “Native American Day”, and some have pushed to name it Leif Eriksson Day, after the first (documented) European to set foot in the Americas. The reasons for renaming the holiday mostly have to do with Columbus’s treatment of the natives, but in large part miss the purpose of the celebration.
Columbus Day was first recognized in 1937, by president Franklin Delano Roosevelt, after being pressured by Italian-American and Catholic groups, including the Knights of Columbus, who felt marginalized in the majority Anglo-Saxon Protestant United States. The holiday helped to bolster Italian-Americans confidence in their heritage and identity as Americans. The creation of Columbus Day had benevolent purpose behind it, despite what its detractors may argue.
To be sure, Columbus was not a perfect person by any means, and was guilty of enslaving the native Taino. His voyage decimated the Taino population the spread of disease as well. The purpose of Columbus Day, however, is not to condone all of his actions, nor is it to exalt him, but rather it exists as a day for us to remember his discovery that led to the creation of our country.
“But wait! Columbus didn’t even discover the Americas! Leif Eriksson was the first European to set foot in the ‘New World’!” you might be thinking.
There are two problems with the assertion that the holiday should be named “Leif Eriksson Day” because people already lived in the Americas, and thus they were never “discovered.” First, Leif Eriksson’s discoveries never became widely known outside of Scandinavia, and thus no permanent settlements were made in the Americas as a result of his exploration. If Columbus Day serves the purpose of celebrating events significant to the United States, then Leif Eriksson has no place in the name of the holiday. Second, if no one “discovered” the Americas, then logically there should be no celebration of any European explorers who ventured there.
A logical conclusion to the aforementioned position would be naming the holiday “Indigenous Peoples’ Day” because it celebrates the original inhabitants of the land our nation was built upon. The only problem, however, is that the United States would never have existed without Columbus’s voyages, and therefore there would be no reason for a holiday in the first place. Columbus’s voyages informed Europe of the existence of land which could benefit their growing empires. His “discovery” prompted Spain, Portugal, England, and other nations to create colonies in the Americas, some of which would eventually rebel and become the United States of America.
Columbus’ exploration was crucial to the establishment of our country, and Columbus Exists to celebrate that piece of our nation’s history, not his detestable actions while in the Carribean (for which he was arrested by the Spanish Crown). We must acknowledge Columbus’ excursion as vital to our existence, which is why we Columbus Day’s name should remain.