Re-navigating Columbus

Community discusses the controversy regarding the celebration of Columbus Day versus Indigenous Peoples’ Day in America.


Illustration by Sydney Fener

Fallon Dern and Lily Lee

“In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” Lessons on Columbus are taught in several schools around America. However, as students learn history at higher levels, they are exposed to what the nursery rhyme ignores: genocide and misconception, according to The Washington Post. Now, both students and teacher reevaluate what the holiday celebrates and all that it overlooks. According to Forbes, New York City public schools replaced Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

Three hundred years after Columbus initially arrived in North America on Oct. 12, 1492, a national holiday is now celebrated in his honor. One hundred and eighty-five years later, Indigenous Peoples’ Day was created to honor Native American Indigenous people.

President Joe Biden is the first president to officially acknowledge Peoples’ Day, according to The Washington Post.

Students and teachers discuss Christopher Columbus and his role in contemporary discussions of American history

History teacher Peter Sheehy said as a child growing up in New York, he grew accustomed to a day off from school and large Columbus Day celebrations such as the Columbus Day Parade. He said after moving to California, he noticed ambivalence toward the holiday and disdain toward Columbus himself. Sheehy said he acknowledges the differences between how Columbus is celebrated and provided historical examples of many events that disrespected Native Americans by idolizing Columbus.

“There was Chicago World’s Fair called the Columbian Exposition in 1882,” Sheehy said. “It had stations displaying indigenous Native American people like zoo animals, setting up Eskimo tribes and bringing them in. They were treated like curiosities of a more primitive way of life, and this continued even in attempts to include them. There’s all this weird history of colonization that was going on and reduced Native American people into some fascination.”

Sheehy said he has yet to encounter any student who strongly advocated for the preservation of Columbus Day, but has taught several students who advocate against it.

Ava Weinrot ’23 said she disagrees with the positive representation of Columbus in American classrooms because creates misconceptions and feels the holiday should not continue to be celebrated.

“Columbus did not do anything for America, so I don’t know why we consider him an integral part of the American foundation,” Weinrot said. “Indigenous people are a group of people who were oppressed at the expense of America’s foundation and success. It is wrong to ignore that piece of our history.”

Cheery Chen ‘23 said Columbus should not be celebrated on Columbus Day and international schooling impacted her opinion on the holiday.

Chen, who moved from Hong Kong to Los Angeles at age 12, said she learned about Columbus’s voyage in China, but she never understood why it was so important. After learning about American history in various U.S. classrooms, Chen said her opinion on the matter has not changed: While the discovery of America is noteworthy, Columbus does not deserve a holiday.

“You can somewhat separate achievements with people when you look back on history,” Chen said. “We could celebrate some things that he has done rather than celebrate him as a person because he has done undeniably heinous things. It is hard to completely stop celebrating any achievements by people who have done terrible things. I have never really understood why we celebrated him as a person, but I think it wouldn’t be bad to celebrate the achievements of people who have done dishonorable things as well.”

Chad Bacon ’22 said he agrees that Columbus’s achievements should not be overlooked. He said he grew up learning about Columbus’s accomplishments.

“I absolutely do [think Columbus Day should be celebrated] because he was the first person who did not originally come from the continent of North America who discovered North America or South America,” Bacon said. “He was the first person who wasn’t part of that large island who actually discovered it. There is something still to be celebrated.”

Bacon said Columbus Day probably will not be recognized in 10 years, but he does not agree that it should not be celebrated on Oct. 11, 2021.

“Just because people did atrocious things doesn’t mean you should fail to recognize the wonderful things they did,” Bacon said. “It’s a very naive perspective to look at the world as black and white and say, ‘well these people did bad things, so therefore we can’t celebrate the good things that they did.’ It is a naive perspective not to acknowledge and celebrate Columbus Day, while also being aware of the fact that we are not celebrating the fact that he was a perfect person. There is no debate. He accomplished several great feats as a person. I understand the arguments against Columbus Day. I just don’t think that they are good arguments.”

Haruka Endo ‘24 said Americans should not acknowledge Columbus Day, even though she has been taught to celebrate it countless times.

“My whole life people have just mentioned Columbus Day and never acknowledged the Indigenous community, so I have been influenced by that in how I see that day,” Endo said.“It’s horrible that Americans still celebrate it, but I think the reason why the holiday came into being is because back then, white supremacy was way more common than it is today, because of that they wanted to honor him and look past the other bad things he did. He does not deserve an entire holiday.”

Elysia Phillips ‘24 said she acknowledges Indigenous Peoples’ Day and believes it should be the sole holiday celebrated on Oct. 11, replacing Columbus Day entirely.

“Some people celebrate Columbus, but by now we should just celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day,” Phillips said. “It’s about time that Columbus Day should not be acknowledged. Some of the people in government respect Columbus and what he has done and those who have less power do not have as much authority in America’s holidays.”

Students and teachers discuss how other countries view Columbus Day

Spanish teacher Joaquin Fernandez-Castro said, while Spain does not have an official Columbus Day, there is a celebration to commemorate Spanish accomplishments throughout history.

“On October 12th, it is el Dia de Hispanidad [the National Day of Spain], and the concept is to celebrate everything Spanish,” Fernandez-Castro said. “It is not just the discovery of the New World, but it is the creation of a whole new group of people. Christopher Columbus is acknowledged, but it is not called Christopher Columbus Day. Celebrating [Christopher Columbus] is more of a U.S. thing.”

History and Social Studies teacher Erik Wade said Canada is an example of a country the U.S. should learn from. Wade said the U.S. has a long history of ignoring Indigenous people because Americans are often uncomfortable with acknowledging the injustices which their ancestors had inflicted upon Native-Americans.

“Essentially you have to acknowledge the fact that the forefathers and the founders of the United States trampled over, killed, raped and took over people’s land,” Wade said. “That is not easy work to do, but I think if you actually acknowledge Indigenous Peoples’ Day and the complexity of that day and our past, we can do a lot in the way of healing as a nation and we can do a lot in serving Indigenous People who remain here with more justice, tolerance and inclusivity.”

Wade said that it is necessary for educators to include indigenous voices in historical conversations.

“If we are going to have a real, honest conversation about this, we need to include indigenous voices,” Wade said. “We need to include folks in communities around us that could shed more light to this conversation.”