Columbus Day Controversy Essay Topics

Does your school recognize Columbus Day as an official holiday? What do you know about Christopher Columbus?

In this 2014 piece, “Columbus Day, or ‘Indigenous Peoples’ Day’?,” Jake Flanagin writes:

It’s a controversial day with a turbulent history. “This historically problematic holiday — Columbus never actually set foot on the continental U.S. — has made an increasing number of people wince, given the enslavement and genocide of Native American people that followed in the wake of the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria,” writes Yvonne Zipp for The Christian Science Monitor. “The neighborhood wasn’t exactly empty when he arrived in 1492.”

Back in 1992 — 500 years after Columbus’s fateful landing in the Caribbean — Berkeley, Calif., was the first American city to repurpose his day in honor of Native America. “Talk of an alternative Columbus Day dates back to the 1970s,” writes Nolan Feeney for Time, “but the idea came to Berkeley after the First Continental Conference on 500 Years of Indian Resistance in Quito, Ecuador, in 1990. That led to another conference among Northern Californian Native American groups.” Attendees brought the idea in front of the Berkeley City Council, after which they “appointed a task force to investigate the ideas and Columbus’ historical legacy.” Two years later, council members officially instated Indigenous Peoples’ Day in lieu of Columbus by a unanimous vote.

The California state senator Lori Hancock, then the mayor of Berkeley, remembers encountering Italian-American pushback similar to that in Seattle. “We just had to keep reiterating that that was not the purpose,” she told Mr. Feeney. “The purpose was to really affirm the incredible legacy of the indigenous people who were in the North American continent long before Columbus.”

And it’s worth noting that not all Italian-Americans tote Christopher Columbus as a symbol of cultural pride. “Those supposed leaders in the Italian-American community who oppose Indigenous Peoples’ Day on the same day as Columbus Day do not speak for all of us of Italian descent,” writes Margaret Viggiani of Seattle in a letter to The Seattle Times. “They certainly don’t speak for me. I, and many others, agree wholeheartedly with the long-overdue change and applaud the Seattle City Council for doing it.”

“Why should anyone take pride in honoring the life of a man who brought misery and degradation of the native peoples of this hemisphere?” she asks. “It’s time to give due to the important and overlooked accomplishments of the many indigenous people who inhabited this hemisphere long before it was named the Americas.”

Students: Read the entire article, then tell us:

— Why does the United States celebrate Columbus Day? In your opinion, is the holiday problematic?

— What do you think of the argument for changing the name and focus of the holiday from Columbus to “indigenous peoples”? Does it dishonor the heritage of Italian-Americans, a group that has also faced discrimination? Or does it serve to recognize and affirm the overlooked history and contributions of Native Americans?

— Do you think changing the name of the holiday can change the way indigenous peoples are treated and remembered in United States history? Or is this move largely symbolic?

— Do you think the United States should continue to recognize Columbus Day as an official holiday? If so, why? If not, should we celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day instead — or something else?


Related Teaching Idea: The Role of Monuments

In an August 2017 piece, Trip Gabriel writes:

... since the violence in Charlottesville, Va., two weeks ago, the anger from the left over monuments and public images deemed racist, insensitive or inappropriate has quickly spread to statues of Christopher Columbus and the former Philadelphia tough cop mayor Frank Rizzo, Boston’s landmark Faneuil Hall, a popular Chicago thoroughfare and even Maryland’s state song. An Asian-American sportscaster named Robert Lee was pulled from broadcasting a University of Virginia football game.

The disputes over America’s racial past and public symbols have proliferated with dizzying speed, spreading to states far beyond the Confederacy and inspiring campaigns by minorities and political progressives across the country.

In September 2017, a statue of Columbus in New York City was defaced with red paint stained on his hands, symbolizing his role in the genocide of Native Americans. In August of 2017 in Baltimore, another statue of Columbus was graffitied with the words: “Racism: Tear it down.”

Continue reading the main story

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