The story of Christopher Columbus has been popularized in schools throughout the United States, where children learn songs about his adventures across the ocean blue. They celebrate a holiday devoted to his legacy, a day where young learners gather to hear stories of adventure in new lands and the mystique of early America. Rarely mentioned in this context is the man who deprived indigenous Americans of their land and their rights.
Throughout the nation, many cities and states have committed to changing the name of this holiday. As of October 2016, Denver, Phoenix, Seattle and Minneapolis were only a few of the major cities making the shift to Indigenous Peoples’ Day for the second Monday of October. Omaha might join this movement in the coming months, as a multipartisan group of sena-tors are cosponsoring Legislative Bill 485, which would establish Indigenous Leaders’ Day statewide.
Dr. Brady DeSanti, Assistant Professor in Religious Studies and Native American Studies, offered his thoughts on the matter. As a scholar of Native American Studies and as an enrolled member of the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe tribe of Hayward, Wisconsin, he believes that eliminating Columbus Day and replacing it with Indigenous Peoples’ Day is warranted.
“The historical record indicates that Columbus personally engaged in and encouraged acts of violence towards indigenous communities in the Caribbean,” Desanti said. “In a way, Columbus’ actions, alongside the Spanish in places like Haiti, Cuba and Puerto Rico, set the tone and established the roadmap by which the ensuring dispassion and colonization of the Americas would take place, continuing to the present day.”
This history is quite different from what we hear as children. We are told in schools about the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria, the alliteratively named ships that Christopher Columbus brought to 15th-century America. It is far rarer to hear accounts of the consequences for Indigenous Americans, at least in the earlier years. The romanticizing of colonization has existed in American schools for so long that many are finding it difficult to let go.
The holiday started in the United States in the 18th century and became a federal holiday in 1937. It is still found in textbooks all over the country as a day commemorating the glories of exploration and discovery.
Several options have been considered as replacements for the holiday. Some believe that the day should be devoted to a specific tribal leader, such as Standing Bear, the man who fought for the right to return from a reservation in Oklahoma in order to bury his son in Nebraska. After taking the fight to an Omaha courtroom, a historic ruling resulted in the acknowledgment that Native Americans are considered people under the law.
The legislative bill in Nebraska proposes honoring leaders from the Ponca, Omaha, Winnebago and Santee Sioux tribes.
“I favor Indigenous Peoples’ Day over Standing Bear Day, not because I hold any malice whatsoever towards the Ponca nation, north and south, or Standing Bear himself,” Dr. DeSanti said. “Rather, I just feel that Indigenous Peoples’ Day addresses all Native people and is clearer for a general audience.”