For most of us, Columbus Day is only special because we get the day off from work. But over a hundred years ago, the federal holiday pitched Italian-Americans and those with northern European heritage head to head in a fight to recognize the explorer who really discovered America.
But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter who “discovered” the New World. By the time Columbus sailed across the Atlantic, he was heading toward a land filled with 18 million people.
And now the descendants of those people, who note some uncomfortable truths about Columbus — that he is responsible for the mass genocide, enslavement, rape, and torture of Native Americans and opening the door for the slave trade — are slowing erasing the day we’ve long used to honor him.
But first, the battle you’ve probably never heard of — between Christopher Columbus and the guy who was probably the first European to make it to the Americas, Leif Erikson. The Icelandic Viking pagan is believed by some to be the first explorer from across the pond to reach our shores, National Geographic reported.
And he does have his own holiday, the Friday before Columbus Day, but it’s not a federal one — and thus no one gets the day off in honor of Leif. But archaeologists have uncovered proof that his visit predated Columbus’ trek; Viking settlements have been found in North America, with more still to be found.
Back when the powers-that-be were assigning holidays, however, Erikson got the heave-ho due to some pretty intense early lobbying from Italian Americans, who to this day consider Columbus Day as a holiday to honor their heritage and the beginning of cultural exchange between America and Europe. Seattle native Lisa Marchese told the Washington Post that the effort to get rid of their holiday is very offensive.
“For decades, Italian Americans celebrated not the man, but the symbol of Columbus Day. That symbol means we honor the legacy of our ancestors who immigrated to Seattle, overcame poverty, a language barrier and above all, discrimination.”
At the turn of the 20th century, there were two camps in the battle to recognize the man who “discovered” an already-populated land. On the one hand, the Italian immigrants who wanted Columbus to be honored. Trouble was, at the time, America was decidedly against immigrants, Italians, and Catholics. Those who supported Erikson wanted a non-Catholic, northern European explorer to be honored with this recognition. Anglo-Saxon Protestants simply preferred the pagan over the Catholic.
Native Americans have a much different view of Columbus Day. For them, his arrival on their shores seriously damaged their culture and civilization, which has only just started to recover. According to Reuters, a Franciscan Friar named Bartolome de la Cassas wrote that 14 years after a colony was established in the New World in 1493, three million local Natives died of disease, were murdered by Europeans, or worked to death as slaves.
“Who in future generations will believe this?” he wrote. “I myself writing it as a knowledgeable eyewitness can hardly believe it.”
The population collapse that followed would be called genocide today. The estimated 18 million indigenous peoples who lived in America when Christopher sailed the ocean blue were decimated to under a million by 1800 and 250,000 by 1900.
Then there’s the matter of colonialism, slavery, discrimination, and land grabs that followed, the Associated Press added.
Today, Native Americans are taking back the day, and many cities are jumping on board to ditch Christopher and embrace the country’s history, embodied in its indigenous peoples. Already, four states officially celebrate “Native American” or “Indigenous Peoples Day,” Seattle and Minneapolis joined them last year, and this year, nine cities are following suit: among them, Albuquerque; Portland, Oregon; St. Paul, Minnesota; and Olympia, Washington.
And Natives are finally bouncing back. Today, 2.9 million people identify as Native and 2.3 million as mixed race. Still marginalized and suffering serious social problems, 70 percent now live in urban areas and are gaining political clout. For them, taking the holiday away from Christopher Columbus means a lot, said Nick Estes of Albuquerque.
“We actually have something… This is the beginning of something greater.”
[Photo Courtesy David Ryder / Getty Images]