It is time for Columbus to go. Today, Los Angeles City Council has the opportunity to take a historic step, joining a wave of more than 60 other cities, counties and states across the country in eliminating the official celebration of Columbus Day on the second Monday of October and establishing Indigenous Peoples’ Day in its place. (after this piece was posted, the LA City Council replaced Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day on city calendar)
The historical record on Christopher Columbus is clear. He did not “discover” America: there were more than fifty million people, with advanced cultures and a wide diversity of languages, social structures, and economic networks, already living here for thousands of years before his accidental arrival (he meant to sail to India). By his own account, Columbus immediately set about enslaving the Indigenous people he encountered in the Caribbean, and under his command his men engaged in brutal murder, rape, and the imposition of systematic forced servitude. Within a couple of decades, the Indigenous population had been reduced to near inexistence by violence and disease brought by the Europeans.
Defenders of Columbus argue that he was a man of his times, and must be understood in the context of his day. However, what rarely gets raised is the fact that even in his day Columbus and his actions were not considered acceptable.
While it is true that some forms of slavery were generally accepted in Spain, the enslavement of the Indigenous people of the “new world” was never considered categorically acceptable by the Spanish Crown. When Columbus returned from his first voyage with Indigenous slaves, the Spanish monarchs sent many of them back to their homelands. In 1512-13, the Crown promulgated laws explicitly restricting the mistreatment of Indigenous people in the new colonies of the Americas (though mistreatment continued). In the decades following Columbus’ arrival, debates raged in Europe about whether Indigenous people were humans with souls (and thus the potential to become Christians), on which hinged the question of whether they should or should not be enslaved. Columbus himself, just a decade after his landing in Hispanola, was fired as Governor by the Crown for his brutality, and even briefly jailed for it.
As part of City Council’s community engagement process, hundreds of Native people have come forward to explain how the celebration of Columbus Day creates an ongoing harm.
Of course, Europeans would go on to develop and expand the extensive Altlantic slave trade, so they were by no means morally reticent about enslavement itself, but the question of support for enslaving indigenous peoples in the Americas was more complicated than Columbus’ cheerleaders imply. One can hardly argue that his brutal exploits were generally acceptable in the context of his day.
More importantly, we live today, and we can and should decide who we celebrate and who we do not based on today’s context. As part of City Council’s community engagement process, hundreds of Native people have come forward to explain how the celebration of Columbus Day creates an ongoing harm. For us, Columbus represents the setting in motion of the genocide of our people – the longest sustained genocide of the modern era. The denial of our history and the outright lies that accompany the celebratory narrative of Columbus create real psychological damage. This is particularly harmful to our children, forced to endure demeaning and false version of history regularly in the course of their public school education. Columbus Day is a form of symbolic violence that exacerbates intergenerational historic trauma for our peoples.
Native Americans currently suffer very high rates of poverty, alcoholism and drug abuse, sexual violence, incarceration, and suicide. We must consider, and take responsibility for, the impact of on-going harms such as the ones caused by Columbus Day in generating and perpetuating the social and psychological circumstances behind these statistics.
Los Angeles is home to the largest population of Indigenous peoples in the country, though we are often invisible to public eye. Many Angelenos wrongly believe that American Indians died out long ago. However, Native people from local tribes such as the Gabrieleño Tongva and Fernandeño Tatavium, from tribes throughout California and throughout the country, and from Indigenous communities in other countries, especially Mexico and other parts of Latin America, live, work, study, and thrive in the Los Angeles area.
The celebration of Columbus Day, with its whitewashed history and erasure of the Indigenous contributions, is a source of pain and a detriment to our futures. It is time for Los Angeles move with the arc of the moral universe, which, as Martin Luther King told us, bends toward justice.
We should join the many other cities, counties and states across the nation that have decided to come to terms with our difficult history and take a step toward truth and social justice for the millions of living Indigenous peoples who reside in and contribute to our diverse city today.