Columbus Day in the United States: the battle over Spain’s first conquistador

Catherine Wray, Sixth Form hispanist 

Throughout the United States many states, cities and schools have this year chosen to celebrate Indigenous People’s Day on the second Monday in October, rather than perpetuate the decades-old Columbus Day tradition.  

The idea of an Indigenous People’s Day was first suggested in an international conference about discrimination sponsored by the United Nations in 1977. Twelve years later, in 1989, South Dakota became the first US state officially to recognize the day. Today, 14 states, including Alabama, New Mexico and Oregon, and more than 130 cities are celebrating Indigenous People’s Day alongside or in place of Columbus Day.  

Indigenous People’s Day’s increasing popularity reflects a broader societal need in the USA to improve cultural awareness and recognise the hardships that have affected indigenous people both historically and in the present day.  By contrast, Columbus Day can be seen as glorifying the European settlement which brought about the genocide of Native American people and laid the foundations for the transatlantic slave trade. 

Although Christopher Columbus is traditionally depicted as having ‘discovered’ America, there were of course millions of people already living there when he made landfall in 1492. During the following two decades, Columbus led four expeditions to South America and the Caribbean, enslaving, exploiting and abusing the native populations and laying the groundwork for their later exploitation. Many have therefore demanded the removal of statues of Columbus.  In the wake of George Floyd’s death in 2020, some were indeed taken down.  

Although he is known in the Spanish-speaking world as Cristobal Colón, Columbus was born in Genoa in 1451 as Cristoffa Corombo. This leads some to regard Columbus Day as an important occasion for the Italian-American community.  Chicago’s joint civic committee of Italian-Americans has declared that “our Italian-American community is excited to recognise this important tradition, which has been going on for generations”. According to a 2019 poll by the Census Bureau, over 16 million people in the United States have Italian heritage – almost 5% of the population.   

Former US president Donald Trump supported the Columbus Day tradition.  In his words,   “radical activists have tried to tarnish the legacy of Christopher Columbus…. seeking to replace the discussion of his vast contributions with talk of his shortcomings, his discoveries with atrocities and his achievements with transgressions. We must teach future generations about our historical heritage, beginning with the protection of monuments to our intrepid heroes like Columbus.” The Columbus tradition therefore finds itself squarely in the framework of the American right’s demands for ‘patriotic education’ and a ‘pro-American curriculum’ in the country’s schools (ie no teaching of the history of racism). 

That has not stopped the spread of Indigenous People’s Day celebrations. Rockville, Maryland, Salem, Massachusetts and Montgomery, Alabama all marked Indigenous People’s Day for the first time.  The mayor of Montgomery Steven Reed described the decision as a “recognition of the true history of the city,” and telling the Montgomery Advertiser that “we are not rewriting history. In fact, we are allowing a more precise version of history to be told in recognition of the people native to this land.” It matters, he says, because “we need to be honest about the past in order to heal, reconcile ourselves and become an even stronger community.”  

Many in the US support this position.  With increasing awareness of indigenous cultures and the atrocities committed by the colonisers, perhaps it is a question of when, not if, the majority of states will choose Indigenous People’s Day as the focus of their commemoration.