The Trump administration caused outrage by releasing yesterday a proclamation marking Columbus Day. The proclamation claimed that, “Christopher Columbus’s intrepid voyage to the New World ushered in a new era of exploration and discovery.” Trump bemoaned, “Sadly, in recent years, radical activists have sought to undermine Christopher Columbus’s legacy. These extremists seek to replace discussion of his vast contributions with talk of failings, his discoveries with atrocities, and his achievements with transgressions.” The release of the resolution was obviously timed to combat the growing movement to celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day in Columbus Day’s stead.
While it is true that Columbus did contribute “immeasurably” to U.S. history, his contributions are better characterized as a horrific atrocity that led to unmitigated suffering. Not only did Columbus brutalize the native Taíno people he encountered on Hispaniola, he also enslaved and murdered all those who stood against his self proclaimed fiefdom in the Caribbean. Moreover his expedition laid the foundation for the slave trade that claimed the lives of tens of million of Africans and involved the most unspeakable brutality.
His actions were so egregious even for his time that when word got back to the Spanish royalty that financed his voyage, he was stripped of all his governorships and titles and sent to prison. Columbus was irredeemably brutal, and any attempt to rehabilitate his character is a deliberate move to whitewash his crimes and erase the historical memory of those he forced into subjugation.
Another element of historical distortion in the White House’s proclamation was that, “For Italian Americans, Christopher Columbus represents one of the first of many immeasurable contributions of Italy to American history.” The first national observance of Columbus Day in the United States was held on October 21st 1892 by proclamation of then president Benjamin Harrison. The proclamation was made in the wake of the 11 Italian Americans lynched in New Orleans just a year prior. Harrison intended for this national observance to ease tensions within the Italian American community and prevent rumored war with Italy.
It was a perfunctory gesture, but the ramifications of it would reverberate throughout U.S. history culminating in the bestowal of whiteness onto Italian Americans and further relegating Indigenous peoples to a second class social status.
The Trump administration’s move to honor a genocidal tyrant over the heritage of Indigenous peoples is not an aberration. It is white supremacist ideology in action. But this ideology does not just take the form of symbolic gestures and celebrations. It also manifests as disproportionately high poverty and unemployment rates on Native reservations and the stripping of tribal sovereignty and decision making powers from Indigenous peoples during a pandemic. It also takes the form of congress withholding up to $40 million in crucial aid to Native reservations needed to help fight the coronavirus.
Jean Roach, a Mnicoujou Lakota elder, told Liberation News that in her view, “The reality is Columbus was a murderer. He murdered thousands of people in the name of gold. Trump uses Columbus as part of his hate and racism campaign against Indigenous people. It’s just Trump trying to stir up more hate and racism by making that statement.”