In the United States, the second Monday in October is designated as Columbus Day, one of only 10 official federal holidays. Relatively recently, some think Columbus Day should instead be celebrated as Indigenous People’s Day. In keeping with many national discussions these days, feelings on both sides are strong.

I’ll always consider Columbus Day to be October 12 because that is the date he first set foot in the Americas and the day it was celebrated at school and work for most of my life. Every American school kid of my generation had it drummed into our heads that Columbus discovered America. Period. End of story. Any question of that proposition was heresy and tantamount to being some kind of pinko commie radical.

Of course when Columbus “discovered” America in 1492, he was met by descendants of people who had been living in North and South America for thousands and thousands of years. The Americas were populated by many thriving civilizations when Columbus arrived. In fact, Columbus didn’t “discover” squat. He wasn’t even the first European.

As I think about the debate between Columbus Day and Indigenous People’s Day these are a few of the things that come to mind.

Assume that a technologically highly advanced alien civilization traveled great distances through space to Earth and encountered our preexisting and comparatively primitive cultures. Would it be okay for that race to dominate us, claim that it discovered Earth, and teach that fallacy to us and its own race? Earth’s indigenous population would strongly dispute that if the vastly superior aliens allowed.

In fiction like H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, it is always the alien civilization that succumbs to our contagious diseases and never the other way around. There is no reason why that would always be the case. It was European aliens who spread devastating disease nearly everywhere they went, including the Americas, Africa, and the Pacific not the indigenous people who made the Europeans sick. Disease brought by Europeans nearly wiped out indigenous populations and severely degraded their ability to defend themselves.

Although Columbus was the first to widely report his findings, it has been shown that Columbus wasn’t even the first European in North America. Erik the Red, a Viking sailing from Iceland, reached Greenland in 780 AD. Greenland is situated on the North American tectonic plate and closer to the the mainland of North America than to Europe.

Erik’s son, Leif, has been recognized for decades as the first European to arrive on the mainland of North America in about 1000 AD, 500 years before Columbus. Pursuant to a unanimous vote of Congress, in 1964, President Johnson declared a national Leif Eriksson Day. October 9 in the U.S. has been officially and nationally recognized ever since as Leif Eriksson Day, though not really celebrated or even widely publicized.

lanse-aux-meadows-house
Erikson’s recreated colonization site at L’Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland. Wikimedia Commons photo

Columbus never reached the North American mainland. He was grossly mistaken about where he was. Columbus thought he’d reached the far east. Hence he named the people he encountered Indians.

Alien abduction is real. Columbus and others involuntarily brought Native Americans back to Spain. Africans were abducted into slavery. As a child I was taught that Magellan was the first to sale around the world. That simplified story is of course false. Magellan was killed in the Philippines. Magellan’s abducted servant, Henrique of Malacca, likely holds the honor of circumnavigating the Earth first. Magellan was killed in the Philippines. Henrique escaped following Magellan’s death. It seems logical that he would have beaten a beeline back to his home in relatively nearby Malaysia.

It has been suggested that the Chinese reached North America before Columbus. In addition, the shortest distance across the Atlantic Ocean (1,600 mi/2,575 km) is between a point on the coast of Senegal, and a point on the coast of Brazil. Weather patterns forming off the west coast of Africa are responsible for storms that hit the United States and Caribbean Islands.

The proximity of the two continents makes it feasible, though not a claim I’m making, that Africans reached the Americas at some point on their own. I don’t trust those who were intent on subjugating and exploiting indigenous populations to accurately report or appreciate the capabilities of the people they were intent on subjugating and exploiting.

Hundreds of years before Columbus, Polynesians had the sailing skill and navigational ability to travel in primitive boats farther than 1,200 mi (almost 2,000 km) across the Pacific to tiny Easter Island. They probably could, and maybe did, go all the way to South America.

Final Thoughts

Columbus Day and Indigenous People’s Day aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. I have no problem with recognizing Columbus’ exploits as long as we don’t say he discovered (as in was the first to find or visit) North America and at the same time recognize the horrible acts and effects of colonization on indigenous populations. Having an Indigenous People’s Day seems like a good idea, too. Any such day, however, should be celebrated on a date that has nothing to do with Columbus Day.

How do you feel about it? Should we celebrate Columbus Day, Indigenous People’s Day, both or neither.