“In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.”
You probably recited the little poem in kindergarten, so it’s likely there’s a special place in your mind for Christopher Columbus.
I get that. Nostalgia is a powerful drug. So is patriotism — our nation’s capital sits in the District of Columbia. Our state capital is Columbus. The name carries a lot of weight.
These are strong ties to a man who died 511 years ago, lionized in the 20th century as the premier explorer of the West. Many of us were (wrongly) taught that Columbus “discovered” America, that his arrival here spoke to a glorious manifest destiny for the descendants of European settlers who not only deserved but had a holy right to claim the lands between the Atlantic and Pacific.
Columbus has been celebrated since the colonial era. In 1892, on the 400th anniversary of his landing in the New World, the United States was caught up in Columbus fever and his legacy was used by preachers and politicians to conjure a sense of patriotism. Feelings of pride were particularly strong among Italian-Americans, especially in New York, who embraced the Italian-born but Spanish-employed Columbus as figurehead of their heritage.
In 1907, Colorado because the first state to embrace Columbus Day as a holiday; 30 years later, the Knights of Columbus had convinced President Theodore Roosevelt to declare it a federal holiday.
Today Oberlin city council members are signaling they’ve had enough of Columbus and that it’s time to retire the October holiday — and I think their counterparts in Amherst and Wellington government need to take heed.
At a May 15 meeting, a cadre of Oberlin residents argued that Columbus isn’t at all the nice guy painted by kindergarten poems, nor is the arrival of the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria cause for celebration.
They want to kill off Columbus Day and replace it with Indigenous Peoples Day. If council agrees — and all signs point that direction — Oberlin will become the first city in Ohio to officially denounce Columbus in favor of Native Americans.
That’s a big deal, even for a city that already has a reputation of “firsts” when it comes to embracing social justice. But Oberlin is hardly alone on this battleground. Anti-Columbus activism goes back to the 1800s (although sometimes based in xenophobia) and is carried on today by folks such as Oberlin resident Three Eagle Cloud.
A Taino Indian whose tribe descended from the Arawak Indians, he staged a Columbus Day 2016 protest on Tappan Square, displaying a stockade with 13 nooses representing Jesus and the 12 apostles.
Stockades were used by Columbus’ men to hang the Arawak people who refused to convert to Christianity. “He said we would make wonderful slaves. That was our redeeming quality,” Eagle Cloud told about 15 protestors who held signs condemning Columbus. “It’s like having a holiday for Adolf Hitler.”
The comparison is far from frivolous.
Columbus, upon arriving in Haiti, enslaved the natives and put them to work in gold mines. An estimated 125,000 to 250,000 died within a few short years. The Arawak genocide was complete within another 150 years.
A 2013 Indian Country Today article by Akwesasne Mohawk author Vincent Schilling argued that Columbus sold sex slaves, some as young as nine, to his men; raided villages for sport; and hunted both grown and infant natives to use for dog food. His activities on Hispaniola landed Columbus in chains but he was later pardoned by King Ferdinand and paid to return to the New World.
Bartolome de las Casas, a Catholic priest in the region where Columbus was governor, documented the atrocities: “My eyes have seen these acts so foreign to human nature, and now I tremble as I write.”
It’s difficult to say how many native peoples lived on the American continents prior to Columbus’ arrival — estimates vary up to 100 million. What is certain is that he set a precedent of atrocities against the people he encountered. Today, the American Indian population is all but extinct.
Speaking May 15, Oberlin residents pointed to continued evidence that the United States does not treat American Indians with respect. The fight over oil pipeline construction through the Standing Rock reservation in North Dakota proves the government does not honor its treaties, they said.
Eagle Cloud said he began fighting to get Congress to change the name of Columbus Day since 1989 but there has been no federal movement on the issue. However, Berkeley, Calif., did away with the holiday in 1992 and communities have since followed in Massachusetts, Wisconsin, Washington, Montana, Colorado, and Arizona.
Late last year, Cincinnati came close to adding Ohio to that list. Its city council suddenly reverse course, though, and a vote failed on the backs of five abstentions with nary a comment about why the decision was made.
Cincy newspapers were flooded with comments of disbelief. The general public, it appeared, had been ready to turn a new page.
Perhaps they share the surprise expressed by Oberlin councilman Kelley Singleton, who said he could hardly believe Columbus Day is still celebrated at all. I’m with him — there are no local parades each October, just curiously long-lasting mattress and auto sales to mark the date.
As a community, Oberlin celebrates Martin Luther King Jr. Day. It celebrates Memorial Day. It celebrates Juneteenth. It celebrates the Fourth of July. As council president Ronnie Rimbert said, it’s never celebrated Columbus Day.
But maybe it can start celebrating Indigenous Peoples Day.
Oberlin is ready to lead the way. I say it’s time for other Lorain County communities to follow suit and be on the right side of history.
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