Writing in his journal two days after setting foot in the
Americas for the first time, Christopher Columbus came to a
conclusion about the native peoples — “I could conquer
the whole of them with 50 men, and govern them as I
More than a year after his arrival in 1492, Columbus returned to
the Americas with 17 ships and 1,200 men, enslaving the natives in
search of gold. With his expedition also came disease, decimating
the population. By 1555, some claim that two million natives on the
island of Hispaniola were nearly reduced to extinction.
And for this cruelty, America awards Columbus with a holiday,
said Matt Stehney, president of the Native American Student
The explorer made his historic landing in the Americas 512 years
ago today, opening the pathway to the colonization of the New
World. Now, not only is he remembered through yesterday’s
Columbus Day, but his name is seen on street signs and bridges and
is even the namesake of cities.
Yet in the minds of many Native Americans like Stehney, beneath
the icon lies his spirit for conquest and an untold story of
genocide, which ultimately led to the gradual takeover of Native
In an attempt to dispel the myths behind the explorer and
reinforce the need to abolish the holiday, the Native American side
of the story will be told today as NASA, La Voz Latina and the
Office of Multi-Ethnic Student Affairs will hold a forum examining
the history around Columbus and his legacy in America.
This legacy has fostered Stehney’s resentment toward
Columbus. As a member of the Taino tribe, Stehney’s people
were the first Native Americans to encounter Columbus. Vivid in his
view of Columbus are the historical records that he says indicate
the rape, murder and eradication of many of his people by Columbus
and his men.
Yet what frustrates Stehney the most is the lack of awareness
about Columbus’s history.
“There are people who say he didn’t kill anyone. But
there are journal entries of him of how he let his men rape the
women and how they would have contests on who could cut an Indian
in half,” he said.
Along with the forum, NASA has chalked slogans across the
campus. In some they have compared the explorer to Hitler in the
hopes to ignite students’ interests about the issue of
Columbus Day, Stehney said.
Over the decades, efforts like those of NASA and Native
Americans nationwide have initiated acknowledgement of the conflict
behind the holiday. Though yesterday marked the federal holiday for
Columbus Day, Michigan is one of the 17 states that does not
observe it. California Rep. Joe Baca (D-Rialto) is also attempting
to pass a federal bill which would change Columbus Day to Native
But ignoring the holiday, let alone altering it would also be
overlooking Columbus’s contributions, said Dona De Sanctis,
the deputy executive director of the national Italian organization
Sons of Italy.
Contrary to Native Americans, Italian Americans view Columbus
Day as an Italian American ethnic holiday since he was an Italian
explorer, De Sanctis said.
“It is the only holiday that recognizes the contributions
of Italian Americans to the United States. We are largely absent
from history books that children study in school. … So
we seize upon this one day,” he said.
Regardless of the cruelty endured by Native Americans, De
Sanctis said even opponents of the holiday cannot criticize the
positive impact colonization had on America.
“If you blame Columbus for the colonization of America and
the destruction of Native Americans, then you also have to thank
him for bringing democracy, law, science, medicine, technology and
all the benefits of civilization to the new world,” he
Despite these arguments, Columbus Day is still an unjustified
holiday, said Rackham student and Potawatomi Indian Jon Low. He
added that in legal terms, the question comes down to why Columbus
Day, an ethnic holiday, should be state-funded.
“Why should the tax payers be paying for this holiday? Why
should we be subsidizing this holiday, when we aren’t
subsiding any one else’s ethnic holiday,” he said.
Moreover, why is it necessary for Columbus to be the figurehead
of an Italian American holiday, Low asked.
“As a native person, I would love to join Italian
Americans in celebrating their heritage. But having Columbus as
their symbol makes it difficult for us. It seems to me there are
better ways to celebrate Italian culture,” he said.
Yet beyond the issue over the holiday’s meaning to Italian
and Native Americans is his symbolism to Americans. Though hardly
anyone celebrates Columbus Day, LSA freshman Billy Heisler said the
idea of Columbus’ greatness is prevalent among many
Americans. He added that many students like him adopted this image
of Columbus in elementary school.
“We learned that Columbus discovered America and sailed
the ocean blue. We had picture books and it was just another story,
so I didn’t think much of it,” he said.
For Heisler, that image of Columbus turned to fiction upon
researching him for a paper in high school. Now Heisler said he
remembers Columbus not as an American hero, but as a man who
brutally mistreated many Native Americans.
Although he did discover America for Europeans, Heisler said he
questions why Columbus deserves to have a holiday, whereas other
great figures who contributed more to America do not have one. Yet
at the same time, he said he acknowledges that Columbus is part of
an American legend that all Americans have grown up living with and
will most likely continue to do so.
“I think it is a folklore and we will always have it
because it’s always been there. Its’ just part of what
we expect from our traditions, even if they are not completely
But to Native American Studies Prof. Gregory Dowd, it might not
only be due to an age-old tradition. Rather it may be apart of an
American mindset that does not want to accept the dark reality of
“Maybe people don’t want to recognize a great deal
of harm that occurred from colonization.”
Columbus may be a symbol of their origins for Americans, but to
Native Americans his image only evokes a great deal of loss, he
said. But in the end, Columbus is not solely responsible for the
colonization of America.
Dowd said, “I wouldn’t want Columbus to take the
entire rap for what followed him in the United States, that
diminishes American responsibility. … The United States has
plenty to answer for.”