Celebrated by Italian immigrants in the United States since 1792, Columbus Day became a federal holiday in 1937 to commemorate the "arrival of Christopher Columbus in the Americas." The explorer’s reputation has darkened in recent years as scholars have focused more attention on the killings and other atrocities he committed against Indigenous peoples of the Caribbean. This year, amid a national reckoning on racial injustice, protesters have toppled and beheaded statues of Columbus in various cities, while pressure grows to abolish the national holiday and replace it with one that celebrates the people who populated the Americas long before the explorer “sailed the ocean blue.”
The articles below showcase that, as communities decide the future of Columbus Day, efforts within the Native community and beyond are underway to highlight indigenous historical materials, hear the unique perspective on climate change offered by indigenous leaders, and revitalize ancestral languages and the cultural identities they sustain.
A Day of Reckoning
Joseph P. Gone, Faculty Director, Harvard University Native American Program
"To commemorate Columbus is to commemorate European colonization of Indigenous peoples. Instead of recalling and recounting those tawdry tales, let us instead cite and celebrate a most improbable outcome of this history: Indigenous survivance. Stories of Indigenous survival, resilience, and resistance remain in short supply in mainstream America, but not because they do not exist; rather, they have been eclipsed through a nationalist project of Indigenous erasure. We can change this by replacing the October federal holiday with Indigenous Peoples' Day."
Curating the Future
Sadada Jackson, MTS '19, a member of the Nipmuc tribe and former graduate research assistant at Tozzer Library
"I wanted to create a space for people who are indigenous, whether they speak or not their indigenous languages, where not only they can be themselves, but also inquire about themselves. It's important for all marginalized people, especially black and native people, who often were not seen or were gazed upon, to have a space where they can see themselves reflected."
Putting 'the Language of the Earth on the Agenda'
Nainoa Thompson, President of the Polynesian Voyaging Society and a Pwo navigator, spoke at HDS about how the ecological is also deeply personal and linked to his heritage
"Twenty-eight years after the European discovery of the island [of Hawaii], 79 percent of native islanders had died. [It is] the chronic story of what happens to Indigenous people around the world. It's characterized by the loss of everything: your lands, governance. When you get close to extinction is when they take away your dignity."
We Speak, Therefore We Are
Marcus Briggs-Cloud, MTS '10, an indigenous Maskoke
"Formally, our language is projected to be extinct in about 20 to 25 years. So, I'm going to speak the language everywhere I go so it's heard by all these plants and all these animals. Especially in our homeland from which we were displaced during Indian removal policies, Alabama, Georgia, Northern Florida, as they're colonially known today, is where all the elements of the natural world recognize our language. When we speak our language there it brings to life the spirit in all those elements of the natural world, so I'm committed to doing that."