Current issues facing the Native American community have fallen quiet as the annual discussion regarding our nation’s celebration of Columbus Day ensued once again on Oct. 10, featuring individuals debating whether or not we should commemorate the explorer’s actions today. This argument is consistently brought up on social media, in politics and historical discussions; all while the descendants of Natives face conflicts both old and new. With economic, health and societal conflicts plaguing Native American reservations, Americans and their representatives need to consider what will help this group the most.
Critics believe that the holiday ignores the Spanish-commissioned captain’s horrific treatment of indigenous people and that it is wrong to celebrate the holiday.
Our historical knowledge about Columbus increases every year. When United States president Benjamin Harrison first recognized the 400-year anniversary of Columbus’ landing in 1892, little was actually known about the explorations.
Now, however, many of the arguments reformists make are based on researched historical facts. Columbus treated indigenous people inhumanely and later, Spanish conquistadors enslaved and eradicated South American natives. Columbus took these behaviors to the extreme when he landed in the Caribbean islands.
Columbus’ own sailors said he was, “self-centered, ruthless, avaricious and a racist,” according to USHistory.com. This quote paints us a clear picture of the explorer sent to the New World. Not even accounting for the diseases, murder and inevitable enslavement he brought to indigenous civilizations, one of Columbus’ biggest follies is that he did not even discover the Americas.
Perhaps Columbus was the first to land in the Caribbean, but historian Christopher Klein and countless other professionals believe Nordic explorer Leif Eriksson touched North America almost 500 years before Columbus was even born. Despite this historical fact, we still choose to honor Columbus.
Discrediting Columbus is not enough to best honor indigenous people, however, as Native Americans in the U.S. face a multitude of conflicts regarding poverty, insufficiently funded education and governmental land rights. For example, nearly one out of three Native Americans are uninsured—meaning health care in these communities is difficult to acquire—according to the Indian Health Services.
Additionally, the ongoing North Dakota Pipeline protests have brought attention to an oil pipeline that will be built through traditional Standing Rock Sioux land. Not only would the pipeline disturb sacred land, but it also could potentially pollute local water systems. There have been multiple arrests of demonstrators and journalists at the protests, and with little media coverage, it seems as though we care more about changing the name of a holiday than protecting the rights of indigenous people.
With so much weight and focus on the name of a holiday, one would think that the focus on poverty, high-school dropout statistics or drug use in indigenous communities would be even greater. Changing the name of Columbus Day would best represent history, but it won’t solve the larger issue of how indigenous people are treated in the U.S.
If we truly want to make a positive impact on the indigenous community, we need to protest for and legislate to help them—lest history sees us as bystanders to a hurting community.