Most Americans know today as Columbus Day, but in some American cities Columbus Day is being replaced by Indigenous People’s Day. Numerous articles have been written advocating for the switch from Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day, citing Columbus’ violence and oppression towards the native people he encountered and came to rule over. In particular, his enslavement of indigenous Americans, including children, and the murder of many natives who opposed his rule, are cited as the main objections to recognizing Columbus and his accomplishments as an explorer and sailor. Columbus was responsible for countless acts of violence and oppression – he even cut the hands off slaves who didn’t work hard enough as a warning to other slaves. Also cited as evidence against Columbus is the effect his discovery ultimately had on the native people of the Americas, of massive death tolls and transfer of wealth and power from the native people to their European conquerors. But if these are the arguments for eliminating Columbus Day, how should we celebrate its replacement by Indigenous People’s Day?
The native people of the Americas were not a particularly peaceful people themselves. Slavery was common among native tribes long before the Europeans enslaved them or brought slaves from Africa (and sometimes Europe) over. Native people went to war with each other about as often as Europeans, Middle-Easterners, East Asians, and Africans – quite often by modern standards, but normal for most of history. The Aztecs performed public executions of captured prisoners of war to frighten their enemies and rile up their people, and they conquered a vast empire – at least by the standards of their time and place. In the American midwest, there is evidence of tribal warfare going back to at least 250 years before Columbus, and once contact with Europeans was established, native people used horses and guns purchased from Europeans to go to war with each other. There’s even some evidence of cannibalism by some native tribes, which some archaeologists and anthropologists believe was done to intimidate or demoralize the cannibals’ enemies. Even today, uncontacted native tribes in South America attack outsiders who come near their homes with the kind of hostility, which was normal in the ancient world, but is becoming far rarer these days. Most of history was extremely violent by modern western standards, and neither Columbus nor the native people of the Americas were an exception to that.
The reality is that there isn’t much difference between the violence of Columbus and the Europeans, and that of the Aztecs and other native people of the Americas. The crucifixions of the ancient Romans and the Spanish Inquisition happened for the same reasons the Aztecs carved people’s hearts out of their chests and the Anasazi tribe committed cannibalism. Violence has been used to control people by people of every racial and ethnic group against anyone they thought was too weak to defend themselves.
The violent struggle for survival isn’t limited to humanity either. More native people likely died to diseases they had no immunity to or ecological problems caused by the introduction of new species, than to direct violence with European settlers. Most scholars estimate that the native population in the Americas had declined 90% before the United States was founded, long before settlers had set foot in a majority of the Americas. Nature killed more natives than the Europeans did. Not for the first time, either; tens of thousands of years before Columbus, humanity’s ancestors wiped the Neanderthals and Denisovans out. The four billion year long history of life on Earth is one of constant violence in the struggle to survive on a small planet with a limited ecosystem, and limited resources. We can’t hold Columbus or the native people of the Americas responsible for participating in the same life their ancestors lived since before they were human.
If Columbus Day is to be swapped out with Indigenous People’s Day, the reason can’t be because of his history of violence, unless we’re willing to judge him by a different standard than that of native people across the Americas. The difference between Columbus and indigenous people is that one of them led his people to victory and success, while the other was defeated. This says nothing about which side was right or wrong – if there can even be such a thing in the eternal struggle for survival – but for some, it may be a way to signal whether they prefer to glorify modern western society, or mourn the loss of ancient tribal societies. There are certainly good arguments for preferring each. Modern society is far safer and allows for longer and more peaceful lives, not to mention all our scientific and technological advancements, but tribal societies wouldn’t be causing manmade climate change and massive wildlife loss, which currently threaten our survival, and for some the simpler tribal life may be what they evolved to be suited to.
Should we spend the day celebrating the achievement of an explorer who paved the way for the founding of the most advanced country on Earth, or mourning the loss of those who had to die along the way to where we are now? That’s up to you, and you can even do some of both; spend some time today thinking about the difficulties and sacrifices that have been made throughout our history, both by those who led their people to victory, wealth, and power, and those who tried to defend their people and failed, or who were to powerless to even put up a fight against a superior enemy, human or otherwise. Think about the struggles and sacrifices that have yet to be made for the survival of your people, whoever they may be, and however you might define them. Despite all our advancements, modern man still exists in a world where we can be subjugated and weeded out by other groups of humans, or wiped out by sudden ecological changes we aren’t ready to adapt to. What will you do to secure the survival and wellbeing of your people in this dangerous world?