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Opinion: What elementary school didn’t teach you about Columbus Day

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Each year, on the second Monday in October, the federal holiday Columbus Day is celebrated to remember Christopher Columbus, a native Italian who “sailed the ocean blue in 1492.” He is credited with finding the New World during an expedition sponsored by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain. A review of the facts suggests Columbus should not be revered as an “arrived first” honored adventurer, but rather a “late to the party” gluttonous intruder.  

Millions of natives were already living in North America when Columbus set foot in the Bahamas. In fact, he never actually reached North America; Leif Eriksson, an Icelandic explorer, was the first European to have landed in North America, some 500 years before Columbus.

According to Columbus’ journal, he didn’t celebrate his landing as a scientific triumph but rather an economic success. His focus was on pacifying the native people so as to access gold and other riches that Europeans desperately wanted.

“All I saw were youths, none more than 30 years of age. They are very well made, with handsome bodies,” Columbus wrote. “They neither carry nor know anything of arms,” continuing later that “they should be good servants and intelligent … and I believe that they would easily be made Christians.”

He took natives back to Spain and promised to provide as many slaves as the King wanted. “I our Lord being pleased, will take hence, at the time of my departure, six natives for your Highnesses,” Columbus wrote in his journal.

As viceroy and governor of the Indies, his mistreatment spanned more than just the native peoples; he also unjustly punished Spanish colonists. One example includes cutting the tongue out of a Spanish woman and parading her through the streets because she had suggested Columbus was of “lowly birth.”

Columbus was arrested in 1500 and sent back to Spain where he was stripped of all of his titles. He died in 1506, completely unaware he had discovered a “new world.”

The year 1492 wasn’t the “discovery of America,” but rather the beginning of colonization of America. Early European settlers brought new crops, religions, arms, animals and ideas to the indigenous people. They also brought undue hardship in the form of slavery and European diseases, which decimated the Native American population.

While Christopher Columbus was a brave traveler who began a lasting economic relationship between the Americas and Europe, he was not the first European explorer to find America, and he certainly was not the first person to live here. Perhaps, rather than celebrating Columbus on the second Monday of each October, we can right a historic injustice and instead celebrate the millions of Native Americans who called North America home for thousands of years before that fateful day in 1492.

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