anthropology

How Columbus Day perpetuates a silent legacy of settler colonialism

Today’s movement advancing racial justice and social equality has led many to ponder America’s colonial history as well. Tangible artifacts of settler colonialism present themselves all around us, from the lands upon which our cities were built to the museums that display relics of tribal communities. Yet, other artifacts operate on a more sinister, subconscious level. Columbus Day, a prime example of such ingrained beliefs, reflects how our society’s everyday culture can continue a legacy of oppression. 

Can this seemingly-innocuous celebration actually be harmful? 

To answer this question, we need to reexamine how Columbus and colonialism are taught to schoolchildren: starting from kindergarten, toddlers learn to sing “In fourteen hundred ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue” without any idea of who Columbus was or what “sailing the ocean blue” would lead to. The fact that this is taught at such a young age leads kids to internalize and valorize Columbus for the better part of their childhoods, taking years to unlearn. 

Yet, these simplified stories of adventure and discovery couldn’t be further from the truth. They leave out important information, such as that Columbus initiated harsh genocidal policies against the Arawak Tribe (even bringing disease-ridden captives back to the Old World as museum relics) and that the deeds of his lifespan would lead to a centuries-long genocide of 10 million Indigenous people.

Attribution: Melbourne High School, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Unfortunately, just like how Columbus captured and displayed live Natives in museums, society today continues to treat the Indigenous community as “relics” of a different world. Rather than getting the sovereignty and recognition they have long deserved, tribes continue to be pushed off into reservations. Rather than being accepted as full members of society, they continue to be affected by the stereotype of the “savage other.” Rather than receiving reparations and land rights from the federal government, they continue to live in a government refusing to accept its horrific past. Why is this so?

While the first years of settler colonialism were reinforced by gruesome conflicts over land and territory, today’s systems of power are enforced by a more pervasive, subconscious force: day-to-day actions in common citizens’ lives can cement an ideology on a deeper level than any external structure can. For example, textbook manufacturers have sanitized historical events to obscure the deeds of oppressors so that kids aren’t aware of the atrocities committed. Additionally, the federal government continues to celebrate Columbus Day as a federal holiday but not Indigenous People’s Day. These miniscule issues are indeed simple to fix, but the government’s refusal to do so indicates its unwillingness to acknowledge its past. Due to this, the majority of Americans grow up without an understanding of how the country they live in came to be. Effectually brainwashed, common citizens become agents of the state, executing its will through day-to-day actions. 

This shift in power parallels Michel Foucault’s observations in the 20th century. In “Discipline and Punish: Behind the Prison,” Foucault describes the modern criminal justice system as more diffused, decentralized, and pervasive when compared to past methods of punishment. While his work was primarily in the criminal justice system, the same systems of power he described can be applied to settler colonial studies: because of our collective brainwashing against Indigenous communities, movements advancing their rights are unlikely to become popular in the public eye, and thus, are less likely to succeed.

Hence, when activists demand to end the American celebration of Columbus Day, they are in reality advocating for a far greater vision: a society that acknowledges and tries to correct its horrific colonial past. No longer should children associate a brutal conquistador with an extra vacation day. No longer should the federal government refuse to acknowledge Indigenous People’s Day as a national holiday. Rather, through small but continuous improvements, we can collectively dismantle the structure of power that has pervaded European society for the better part of the millennium.


Further Reading

Lowery, Malinda Maynor. “The Native History of Indigenous Peoples Day.” Yes! Magazine, 9 Oct. 2020, www.yesmagazine.org/social-justice/2020/10/09/indigenous-peoples-day-history/

Mineo, Liz. “Pondering Putting an End to Columbus Day, and a Look at What Could Follow.” Harvard Gazette, 8 Oct. 2020, news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2020/10/pondering-putting-an-end-to-columbus-day-and-a-look-at-what-could-follow/

Zotigh, Dennis W, and Renee Gokey. “Rethinking How We Celebrate American History-Indigenous Peoples’ Day.” Smithsonian Institution, 12 Oct. 2020, www.smithsonianmag.com/blogs/national-museum-american-indian/2020/10/12/indigenous-peoples-day-updated2020/

Featured image by Flickr user Pax Ahima Gethen.

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