Since the City Council proposed renaming Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day two weeks ago, I have seen some appalling defenses of the status quo in these pages. The defenses are so odious, they backfire, far more effectively making the case that we should change the holiday name.
First, some letter-writers have argued, other “explorers” were more brutal than Columbus. Splitting hairs over which conqueror killed more people in worse ways misses the point entirely. Others have noted that Columbus should not be blamed for indigenous deaths in this country because he isn’t the one who came to North America. This academic handwaving is meant to distract from his role as the figurehead for European colonization, initiating a centuries long cycle of invasion, enslavement, and genocide all along the shores of the Americas. The third argument defends European behavior as self-defense: one letter writer described the situation as “kill or be killed.” This is an absolutely flabbergasting line of thinking that erases the basic fact that indigenous communities were invaded. Finally, there are those who believe we should not question the foundational mythology of Columbus’s “discovery,” because doing so calls into question the legitimacy of our presence in North America today. Sounds more like a guilty conscience than a historical argument.
Those who have advocated for removing Confederate memorials in Virginia are familiar with these arguments: “Do not challenge history, or it shall be lost forever.” Memorials, statues, and calendar days are not history, they are the manifestations of what a society chooses to valorize. Having Columbus on a pedestal is an acknowledgment that invasion, exploitation, and slaughter for economic gain are American values; keeping him there now means we believe we cannot do better, or be better.