Understanding why Columbus Day is out and Indigenous Peoples Day is in

Maramis Choufani is the Managing Editor of the Las Vegas Tribune.


Maramis Choufani is the Managing Editor of the Las Vegas Tribune

When we don’t do our homework and just go along with what we think we already know, none of us really wants to change our holidays. It’s easier to keep things “as is.” We don’t like to change the names of our football teams, our towns, our buildings, and certainly not the holidays we’ve come to know and love.
Disclaimer — while I don’t believe that Christmas is the birthday of baby Jesus and that the Christmas holiday as we celebrate it today has anything to do with the Christian religion, I love the holiday and the season and would continue to celebrate it even if the powers-that-be claimed it had to go. I’d still put up a tree, probably even send cards to loved ones, and I’d still give gifts to my family because I love the tradition and the joy of the season. But some holidays are not especially joyous, and most people don’t even know what they’re celebrating. And who would really want to celebrate a tyrant if they knew what he was guilty of?
When we were very young and in school, we probably all learned certain things about Christopher Columbus and why we celebrated Columbus Day.
I didn’t really research any of the things my teacher taught me so I more or less grew up with all those beliefs I was handed on a platter regarding history. But boy, the things we learn when we do our research when we’re older! I’ve known about some of the dark side of Columbus for a while now, but don’t think I’ve written about it. But I can’t ignore it any longer.
When we were in school, the things we learned from our history books about Columbus went something like the following — bland, but adventurous, almost devoid of any character other than some kind of “poor me,” wherein Columbus had to beg for funds to make his expeditions, then had to suffer rebellion at the hands of his crew, yet he managed to be victorious in the end. So he was handed to us as a hero of our American history, thusly: “Born in Genoa, Italy, of humble parents, Christopher Columbus grew up to become an experienced seafarer. He sailed the Atlantic as far as Iceland and West Africa. His adventures convinced him that the world must be round. Therefore, the fabled riches of the East — spices, silk, and gold — could be had by sailing west, superseding the overland route through the Middle East, which the Turks had closed off to commerce.
“To get funding for his enterprise, Columbus beseeched monarch after monarch in western Europe. After at first being dismissed by Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, Columbus finally got his chance when Queen Isabella decided to underwrite a modest expedition.
“Columbus outfitted three pitifullly small ships, the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria, and set forth from Spain. The journey was difficult. The ships sailed west into the unknown Atlantic for more than two months. The crew almost mutinied and threatened to throw Columbus overboard. Finally they reached the West Indies on October 12, 1492.
“Although Columbus made three more voyages to America, he never really knew he had discovered a New World. He died in obscurity, unappreciated and penniless. Yet without his daring American history would have been very different, for in a sense, Columbus made it all possible.” —From The Truth About Columbus, a “poster book” for high school students and teachers (New York: The New Press, 1992)
But those who have done the real research tell us that much of the story surrounding Columbus is exaggerated, left out, or even made up to make Columbus look like a real brave leader of men and a daring explorer who proved that the earth was round (which was already known)
and discovered new lands on which indigenous people were already living (for thousands of years). Research has uncovered that Columbus
never set foot in what we call “America.” His first voyage landed in the Bahamas on that day of October 12, 1492; subsequent expeditions had him landing in Cuba, Jamaica and Hispaniola.
Yes, he was a real man, a real explorer, and may have been very brave, but what they have discovered about him makes me root for Indigenous Peoples Day. I’m not a big fan of tearing down our statues ever (they can be removed and placed in a museum somewhere with labels such as “We made a mistake” or the like); but once we know that a former “hero” has been a slave trader and the cause of many, many thousands of deaths, it puts a whole different twist on that former said hero.
While some hold to his being a genocidal murderer, one of Columbus’s biographers said that it is estimated that 300,000 Taino (Arawak people indigenous to the Caribbean) lived on Hispaniola in 1492, but it had dwindled down to only 60,000 by 1508, then down to only 500 by 1548. As many as 50,000 are believed to have succumbed to mass suicide rather than live under Spanish rule.
One of his several biographers, Lawrence Bergreen, says Columbus was fond of public beatings and whippings, cutting out a woman’s tongue for speaking ill of him and his brothers, hanging others for stealing bread, and ordering vicious lashings for crimes as petty as not properly stocking Columbus’s pantry.
Here is a quote found in LIES My Teacher Told Me, by James W. Loewen: “Christopher Columbus introduced two phenomena that revolutionized race relations and transformed the modern world: the taking of land, wealth, and labor from indigenous peoples, leading to their near extermination, and the transatlantic slave trade, which created a racial underclass.”
More lines about Columbus from that book are: “On his first voyage, Columbus kidnapped some ten to twenty-five Indians and took them back with him to Spain. Only seven or eight of the Indians arrived alive…”
And: “When Columbus and his men returned to Haiti in 1493, they demanded food, gold, spun cotton — whatever the Indians had that they
wanted, including sex with their women. To ensure cooperation, Columbus used punishment by example.When an Indian committed even a minor offense,the Spanish cut off his ears or nose. Disfigured, the person was sent back to his village as living evidence of the brutality the Spaniards were capable of.”
I wish I had that book when I was in school to bring things up in class for discussion — but, of course, even if the teacher would be open-minded or agree with that book, they couldn’t say so because they’d be required to follow the curriculum that was given to them by the Board of Education.
Yet since ALL the research on Columbus reveals a dark and sinister side of him, other than ALL the school history books that they fed us back in the day (I believe most schools are coming to grips with the real Christopher Columbus today and are no longer making him out to be a hero, but it takes time and the willingness of adults to give up certain traditions without erasing Columbus from our past). Erasing history is even worse than ignoring it. We must learn from our past, and not be afraid to see Columbus for the tyrant that he was. Perhaps children are ready to learn that some men like their power so much that they’ll do anything to get it, keep it, and increase it as they go along. And when they see how that kind of power looks, they might not be too inclined to do to others what they would never want done to themselves.
Happy Indigenous Peoples Day — and I mean it without any sarcasm of any kind!
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Maramis Choufani is the Managing Editor of the Las Vegas Tribune. She writes a weekly column in this newspaper. To contact Maramis, email her at maramistribune@gmail.com.

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