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Columbus Day/Indigenous Peoples’ Day 2021

October 11, 2021


Children schooled in the middle of last century grew up reciting the phrase, “In fourteen hundred ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” It made the year 1492 one of the most memorable dates in history. One of those mid-century schoolchildren was the late Jean Marzollo, who grew up to become an award-winning author of children’s books. Her first book, an illustrated poem entitled “In 1492,” was published when Marzollo was only seven-years-old. Her poem begins with the famous stanza about Columbus setting sail, then adds historical facts as she knew them. The poem, in part, reads:


In fourteen hundred ninety-two
Columbus sailed the ocean blue.


He had three ships and left from Spain;
He sailed through sunshine, wind and rain.


Day after day they looked for land;
They dreamed of trees and rocks and sand.


October 12 their dream came true,
You never saw a happier crew!


“Indians! Indians!” Columbus cried;
His heart was filled with joyful pride.


But “India” the land was not;
It was the Bahamas, and it was hot.


Young Marzollo noted in the poem, “The Arakawa natives were very nice; They gave the sailors food and spice.” She ends the poem, saying “The first American? No, not quite. But Columbus was brave, and he was bright.” For many schoolchildren, Marzollo’s account of events is pretty much all they know about Columbus’ arrival in America. History.com notes, “Christopher Columbus was an Italian-born explorer who set sail in August 1492, bound for Asia with backing from the Spanish monarchs King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella aboard the ships the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria. Columbus intended to chart a western sea route to China, India and the fabled gold and spice islands of Asia. Instead, on October 12, 1492, he landed in the Bahamas, becoming the first European to explore the Americas since the Vikings established colonies in Greenland and Newfoundland during the 10th century.”[1] The rest of that history is pretty dark.


No one denies that Columbus’ feat had historical consequences. Not all of those consequences, however, were positive — especially for the indigenous people of the Americas. During an online discussion of Marzolla’s poem, Richard Lorenz penned an alternative rhyme:


In fourteen hundred ninety-two,
Columbus sailed the ocean blue,
He sailed through sunshine, wind and rain
to get to India from Spain.


He hit Bahama, he was pissed.
His chance at fame and glory missed.
He took it out on the local folk.
He stole their gold, and they were broke.


He killed their kids and let them know
Their lives would now be full of woe.
We honor him, I don’t know why,
May his soul in hell forever fry.


The two poems pretty well sum up the dispute that arises each Columbus Day celebration. Nicole Scott (@_nicolescott_), former Director of Native American Future Stewards Program at Rochester Institute of Technology, notes, “We can all name the three ships that left from Spain: the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria. This information was ingrained in our minds as young children. American history classes teach its students that Columbus was seeking an alternative route to India, and instead discovered the Americas.”[1] She goes on to note that most children don’t get the full historical picture and explains why Columbus Day is so controversial. She writes:


For Indigenous people, this holiday is a reminder of what those classes failed to teach — that Columbus and his fellow explorers enslaved, murdered, and raped Indigenous people. In celebrating Columbus, the US forgets the trauma and pain that Indigenous people experienced. Colonization and assimilation are woven into the history of Indigenous people, and that trauma remains with us today. As a native person, I am constantly reminded of just how much we are up against. We are seen as historical figures, and not living beings. Our history is glanced over in history books. We are celebrated and ‘respected’ as sports mascots but not as human beings. For Italian Americans, this holiday is a celebration of their heritage. It is a day where they celebrate their own resilience and remember the struggles they faced as immigrants of this country. It was only decades ago that if you had an Italian last name, you were discriminated against. This is a history that is also not told. Instead, it is overshadowed by an individual who many Italian Americans feel does not adequately represent the great contributions that Italians have made to this country.”


As a result of the continuing controversy about honoring Columbus, many groups have been seeking a better way to make the holiday more inclusive — a holiday to honor all cultural heritages. The District of Columbia (ironically named after Columbus) changed the name of the Federal Holiday to Indigenous Peoples’ Day, a name also used in Alaska, Maine, New Mexico, Oregon, and Vermont. South Dakota renamed the holiday to Native American Day. Hawaii calls it Discoverers’ Day — in honor of the Polynesian, not European, discoverers. Colorado calls the day Cabrini Day, in honor of Frances Xavier Cabrini who helped create schools, hospitals, and orphanages in the United States as well as in Central and South America. In a first, President Joe Biden issued a proclamation declaring today Indigenous Peoples’ Day as well as Columbus Day. He wrote, “On Indigenous Peoples’ Day, we honor America’s first inhabitants and the Tribal Nations that continue to thrive today. I encourage everyone to celebrate and recognize the many Indigenous communities and cultures that make up our great country.”[3]


Because of the controversy surrounding Columbus Day, it is the most inconsistently-observed US Federal holiday. Personally, I prefer the name Heritage Day. We all have a heritage and we should recognize the unique and important contribution each heritage makes to our country, including the heritage of indigenous peoples. America is known for being a melting pot of cultures; and the country’s combined heritage is greater than the sum of its parts. Apparently President Biden is likeminded. In his Columbus Day Proclamation, he stated, “Today, let this day be one of reflection — on America’s spirit of exploration, on the courage and contributions of Italian Americans throughout the generations, on the dignity and resilience of Tribal Nations and Indigenous communities, and on the work that remains ahead of us to fulfill the promise of our Nation for all. … I direct that the flag of the United States be displayed on all public buildings on the appointed day in honor of our diverse history and all who have contributed to shaping this Nation.”[4] Even if you don’t get the day off, my recommendation is to take a moment to honor your heritage as well as recognizing the contributions of other peoples’ heritages to our country.


[1] “Columbus Day 2021,” History.com, 4 October 2021.
[2] Nicole Scott, “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. He had three ships and left from Spain.” Rochester Institute of Technology Newsletter, October 2017.
[3] Joseph R. Biden, Jr., “A Proclamation on Indigenous Peoples’ Day, 2021,” The White House, 8 October 2021.
[4] Joseph R. Biden, Jr., “A Proclamation on Columbus Day, 2021,” The White House, 8 October 2021.

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