Renaming Columbus Day Misses Opportunity to Learn From History

The day that Christopher Columbus arrived in the Americas was a day that irrevocably altered the course of history. His arrival heralded the destruction of entire societies and civilizations, and opened up the American continents for settlement and exploitation by European nations.

Because of this, Columbus and his actions have attracted intense controversy for centuries. He became both a figure of revilement as well as one of heroic worship, and in 1937 the federal government declared that Columbus Day was to be a federal holiday in celebration of Columbus’ arrival in the Americas.

Recognizing Columbus’ brutal treatment of the indigenous peoples during his voyages to America, many universities and cities have opted to celebrate Indigenous People’s Day in favor of Columbus Day with the goal of recognizing the mistreatment of the Native Americans under Columbus as well as to examine the history and culture of Native Americans. MSU joined these institutions on Feb. 25 when ASMSU voted unanimously in favor of adopting Indigenous People’s Day in Columbus Day’s stead, saying “ASMSU opposes all forms of racism including institutional policies that subjugate Indigenous Peoples’ sovereignty.”

This decision, though well intended, stumbles by choosing to draw focus away from Columbus and his actions rather instead of continuously bringing them to light. He was a tyrant whose pursuit of power and wealth caused untold suffering and an explorer who opened the Atlantic trade with all of its history of human miseries and triumphs. His actions forever altered the course of human history.

By choosing to downplay the life of Christopher Columbus by removing him from the public eye, society also downplays the consequences of his actions, both in their depredations of aboriginal cultures and in their transformation of global politics. This ultimately diminishes a great opportunity for people to learn from one of history’s most significant moments.

We learn history in order to not repeat the mistakes of the past. There is a reason that nations in Europe do not rename memorial days held in remembrance of the Holocaust and the Holodomor — because they do not wish to downplay the horrid excesses of Nazism and Stalinism, respectively. They recognize that to do so would be a grave disrespect to the victims. Columbus’ name should not be ignored for the same reason.

Nor should his role be downplayed in the shaping of the modern world. His arrival in the Americas was truly a pivotal historical moment; the rippling effects, both of inspiring and sobering significance, are incalculable.

There is no doubt that Americans have been been learning the wrong lessons from Columbus Day. But there is still much that we need to learn from the actions of Christopher Columbus. He was no hero; he was a tyrant whose ambitions and greed changed the world for centuries to come. Vital lessons for our world today are contained within the story of Christopher Columbus, and we would do well to examine them honestly and face-to-face. That opportunity is best presented by not ignoring his name.

  • Matthew Peter Campbell

    When drafting this resolution, the feedback we received from its supporters (most of whom were from an indigenous background) was that Columbus day served more as a painful memory about what them and their ancestors have had to endure through the last several centuries. We at ASMSU concluded that instead of supporting a holiday that served as this painful memory to so many people, it would be much more constructive to replace it with a holiday that tackled the complex and tragic history of North american indigenous people’s in a more positive manner. This is why we included the line “ASMSU recommends that Indigenous People’s Day be used as an
    opportunity to both celebrate the culture of the many indigenous nations
    throughout Montana and provide MSU students and faculty with the
    opportunity to learn about their history and way of life.”

  • Matthew Peter Campbell

    Another thing I will add is that Columbus day is one of 10 federal holidays. Regarding another similar atrocity in US history, slavery, we do not have a federal holiday celebrating Jefferson Davis or any other historical figure who supported slavery. Instead, we have a federal holiday celebrating Martin Luther King Jr., arguably the greatest champion of African-American civil rights in US history.