Opinion: Letter to the Editor: Preserve Columbus Day in Alexandria

Opinion: Letter to the Editor: Preserve Columbus Day in Alexandria

I hope the City Council will not rename Columbus Day Indigenous People’s Day to “provide an opportunity to acknowledge the overlooked history of oppression and the decimation of Native Americans.”

Establishing a “sister” relationship with a Virginia tribe with mutual exchanges might be a more useful measure. We could learn more about our local indigenous population and perhaps offer some needed assistance.

It is unjust to hold Columbus as the symbol of oppression against Native Americans in our country whose shores he never touched. Later explorers and colonizers, including those who settled Virginia and the rest of our country, participated in mistreatment. The natives did resist European colonization violently so settlers found they needed to kill or be killed. President Jackson initiated the “Trail of Tears.” Especially after the Civil War, following orders, the U.S. Army focused its power against Indians.

Changing the name of the holiday focuses on only problematic aspects of Columbus’ voyages rather than acknowledging their momentous and productive results, including the continued association of the New and Old Worlds and opening our Age of Exploration and Discovery, now extending to outer space. His voyages brought numerous exchanges of mineral wealth, plants, animals, technologies, and ideas. Emphasis on those contributions, worth our respectful attention, will be diminished or lost by a name change. Note what happened to George Washington when his birthday celebration was moved from Feb. 22 to a Monday holiday. Calendars use the incorrect term “Presidents Day,” and many, even in Alexandria, mistakenly think the day honors all Presidents.

Columbus, like Washington, was a bold visionary, ambitious, self-educated, very intelligent, persistent in pursuing his goals despite great obstacles, an inventive problem-solver and charismatic leader. Both defeated rebellions with firmness and survived death threats from immediate associates. When Columbus’ entire crew mutinied and demanded an immediate return to Spain, his advance plan — to ensure they did not kill him and the voyage would continue — worked. At the end of the three days he had bargained, signs of land nearby were spotted at dawn. That occasion was as significant as the arrival of our Apollo 11 to the moon; men set foot where no one else from their culture had ever been.

Accounts of the natives’ genocide may be exaggerated. Noble David Cook claimed: "There were too few Spaniards to have killed the millions who were reported to have died in the first century after Old and New World contact." He estimated the toll was caused by diseases; smallpox was estimated to have had an 80-90% fatality rate among Native Americans. By 1494 disease and famine had also claimed two-thirds of the Spanish settlers. A 1519 pandemic killed much of the remaining native population.

Columbus has been deservedly honored for many years. The use of "Columbia" or "Columbus" spread rapidly after the American Revolution. Those names were given to our federal capital, the capitals of Ohio and South Carolina, and the Columbia River. Let’s continue to honor him in Alexandria on Columbus Day.

Ellen Latane Tabb