Every child who has attended elementary school in the U.S. can without a doubt recall the famous “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue” rhyme.
Though the rest of the poem is a distant memory, as adults, many of us have been exposed to the less celebratory side of Christopher Columbus and the horrific circumstances — slavery, exploitation, disease and, ultimately, genocide — credited to his name that ravaged indigenous people in America after he arrived.
For the last few decades, anti-Columbus Day activism has been steadily growing amid a day usually celebrated with mall sales, time off from school and extended bar hours.
And in a truly virtual age, the dissent has never been more apparent than it is now, where social networks are there to provide an outlet to everyone looking to express an opinion, whether through video, photography, petitions, tweets or status updates.
Look across the networks in your Internet life and you might come across the phrase, “Let's celebrate this Columbus Day by walking into someone else's house and telling them that we live there now,” juxtaposed next to a comical illustration of Christopher Columbus.
Look on the websites of news outlets across the country, and you'll find dozens of editorials for or against Columbus Day.
But given its controversial nature, is Columbus Day still worth celebrating? I knew how strangers and acquaintances felt on Twitter, but for more thought-provoking responses, I was interested in hearing from those who introduced us to the man himself in the first place: teachers.
Scott Andrews, an enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma and coordinator for the American Indian Studies Program at Cal State Northridge said that as a nation that celebrates freedom and opposes tyranny, it's odd to celebrate the expansion of the Spanish Empire into North and South America, which ultimately led to the death and enslavement of millions of human beings.
“But recognizing that irony allows us to honor the memory of the indigenous people of this world, which was 'new' to the Europeans, but an ancient home to its inhabitants,” he said. “And the day allows us to acknowledge the many beautiful indigenous people and cultures that are alive today — including about 200,000 American Indians in Los Angeles County.”
More locally, Roger Bowerman, a professor of history and ethnic studies at Glendale Community College and a Native American studies expert, says he finds the celebration both puzzling and strangely offensive.
“On top of the historical inaccuracies, there is the simple reality that the voyages of Columbus ushered in the depopulation of indigenous Americans,” he said. “The Americas were not, in fact, conquered as much as they were widowed. In the end, I find is appalling that the United States celebrates an event that resulted in such a massive depopulation — intentional or not — and really only reflects misconceptions regarding the reality of his expeditions.”
Elizabeth Kronbeck, also a professor in the history and ethnic studies department at Glendale Community College, thought the question I posed was interesting.
“Is it worth celebrating? Sure, why not? Should we alter the meaning? Should we use it as a day to remember the original peoples who inhabited this continent and perhaps celebrate their heritage and contributions? Heck, if it weren't for them, the Europeans would have starved to death,” she said.
How much do we know about the indigenous populations that freely inhabited the lands where we now live?
As Bill Bigelow, who was a U.S history teacher for more than 30 years, wrote in the Huffington Post: “We all know the name of the man who came here from Europe, but none of us knows the name of the people who were here first — and there were hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of them. Why haven't you heard of them?”
Anti-Columbus Day activists have sought to raise awareness with a counter-holiday called Indigenous Peoples Day, where Native American culture and history is recognized and celebrated instead of Columbus-era conquests.
Perhaps in our community, which according to the 2010 U.S. Census has a Native American population of 0.3%, we can start by recognizing and honoring the Tongva, the indigenous people that inhabited Glendale and the greater Los Angeles area for 7,000 years, and who still exist today.
LIANA AGHAJANIAN is a Los Angeles-based journalist whose work has appeared in L.A. Weekly, Paste magazine, New America Media, Eurasianet and The Atlantic. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.