Columbus Day has been celebrated as a national holiday since 1971, said to celebrate Christopher Columbus’s arrival and “founding” of the New World, but many claim this holiday overlooks the long history of Indigenous people on the continent. Just last week, however, on Oct. 8, President Joe Biden became the first president to commemorate Indigenous Peoples’ day in addition to Columbus Day.
This commemoration is not just long overdue, it is the bare minimum of what needs to be done for Indigenous Americans.
I remember celebrating Columbus Day growing up, specifically celebrating Columbus and his achievements. In school, the majority of what I learned about Christopher Columbus consisted of the classic rhyme: In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.
Megan Hill, a citizen of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin, was also taught that popular rhyme when she was in fourth grade. This rhyme, however, was incredibly jarring for her and her family. When her father heard that she learned it in school, he drove to the school to have an emergency meeting, which ended up changing the curriculum surrounding Christopher Columbus in that school district.
For Hill and other Indigenous people in the U.S., “Columbus Day represents a celebration of genocide and dispossession.” The day does not celebrate the discovery of America or the start of a new nation, as I was taught in school, but rather “celebrates a fictionalized and sanitized version of colonialism, whitewashing generations of brutality that many Europeans brought to these shores.”
Celebrating Columbus Day does not make any sense. He did not actually discover anything, but he did cause the death and enslavement of many Indigenous people. While we as a nation can never fix the death, pain and destruction that Columbus caused, we can make the decision to stop celebrating a day that honors him.
Indigenous Peoples’ Day honors those who were here long before Columbus ever sailed to America. It honors the people who lived in America before it was ever “discovered.” President Biden, in his speech commemorating Indigenous Peoples’ Day, said it honors “indigenous peoples’ resilience and strength as well as the immeasurable positive impact that they have made on every aspect of American society.”
Indigenous people are a part of America, and celebrating Columbus Day only serves to isolate them and cover up that this land was their home before it became America. Even the land in Oxford, Mississippi was originally owned by Indigenous Americans. In 1836, the year Lafayette County was founded, the Chickasaw Indian Cession was signed, “a treaty that instigated the removal of most of the Indians in North Mississippi” and gave Lafayette County the land it inhabits today.
Much of the history America celebrates today happened at the expense of Indigenous people. The year 1836 is a year of celebration for Oxford and the University of Mississippi, as it is the origin of this place we have come to know and love. The same year does not evoke feelings of pride and celebration for Indigenous people, but rather sorrow and even mourning for their people’s homes and lives.
America owes Indigenous people much more than a day honoring them. Making Indigenous Peoples’ Day a national holiday instead of Columbus Day is a start that needs to happen.
Abigail Myers is a sophomore majoring in English and psychology from New Orleans, LA.