Columbus Day Again?

The holiday should celebrate Native Americans, not European expansion

Each October, when Americans celebrate Columbus Day, they celebrate Christopher Columbus’s 1492 “discovery” of North America, a continent already home to hundreds of thousands of indigenous inhabitants. In other words, to celebrate Columbus Day is in part to assume that American history, a trajectory that stretches back for centuries before 1492, begins with the presence of white European explorers—an assumption that smacks of an outmoded, Eurocentric worldview. And while the holiday’s national importance has thankfully diminished in recent decades, the trend away from celebrating Columbus Day should continue even further, and the holiday should be officially replaced with another that celebrates the role and presence of Native Americans in our national history.

First of all, the relevance of Christopher Columbus to the specific history of the United States is dubious at best—the man was an Italian hired by the Spanish crown who landed in Latin America rather than in Boston or in the Chesapeake. If anything, his arrival in the “New World” marks the dawn of an era of European expansion and exploitation, which devastated Native Americans and other indigenous populations. And considering that Columbus Day is the only American national holiday (aside from January’s Martin Luther King, Jr. ,Day) still to bear the name of a single and, at least from the perspective of United States history, not entirely germane individual, its celebration is even more of an anachronism that ought to be replaced.

It would thus be a positive force countering the lingering Eurocentrism in American history if there were at least one holiday commemorating and celebrating Native Americans. Some states like South Dakota and Alabama have already taken the initiative to rename Columbus Day within their own borders, but, on the national level, Columbus Day is still a federal holiday, which should no longer be the case. Replacing Columbus Day with a holiday celebrating Native American culture will do much to bring this country to the realization that its history consists of many episodes less wholesome than the common image—real or imagined—of the first Thanksgiving, where Plymouth colonists shared corn with the local native tribes.

But while a nominal change of the Columbus Day holiday is a start, this country can do much more to challenge the unfortunately widespread Eurocentric approach to American history. For the most part, today’s American children and high-school students are taught that American history begins in 1607, the year the Jamestown settlement was established. Such an approach to American history is as inappropriate as it is inaccurate. And although replacing Columbus Day would certainly be a step in the right direction, we hope that the change would inspire a stronger commitment to teaching the true trajectory of American history—a story that begins well before 1607 or, for that matter, 1492.