Editorials, Opinion

Goodbye Columbus Day, hello Indigenous People’s Day

On Oct. 1, two members of the Human Rights Commission, Don Spencer and Bonnie Brown, met with The Dominion Post Editorial Board to discuss the commission’s proposal to Morgantown City Council to exchange Columbus Day for Indigenous People’s Day.

Unfortunately, the HRC won’t be able to formally present its proposed change until after this year’s Columbus Day has come and gone, but we wholeheartedly agree that Morgantown should observe the second Monday in October as Indigenous People’s Day beginning in 2022.

This isn’t about being “politically correct” or “woke.” It’s not “cancel culture.” It’s about celebrating something that is actually part of America’s past — and present, and future.

To be brief: Christopher Columbus didn’t “discover” America. He landed in the Caribbean, on an island that’s part of the Bahamas. The United States of America gets its name from Amerigo Vespucci, a merchant who sailed after Columbus and “found” Trinidad, Haiti, the Cape Verde Islands and Brazil. In a European publication of the time, it was suggested this “new world” be called Americus or America. And so South America got its European name, later extended to North America. (For more information about Columbus’ arrival in the New World, please see Max Flomen’s essay on C2.)

There are a lot of quotation marks in the paragraph above because the land these Europeans arrived upon wasn’t empty: There were people here, and there had been for thousands of years.

But to the new arrivals, the indigenous population weren’t people: At best, they were potential slaves — lesser beings to be used and abused. At worst, they were an obstacle standing in the way of colonizers and therefore had to be destroyed.

Is that what we want to celebrate?

As much as Columbus’ history has been sanitized and glorified, the history of indigenous peoples has been suppressed, erased and villainized.

Brown, who in addition to her role on the HRC is the Native American Studies program coordinator at WVU, said that she’s encountered people who don’t think Native Americans still exist. That is how effective the erasure has been.

And that’s why we should swap Columbus Day for Indigenous People’s Day — to learn about and celebrate a people who are integral to our nation’s past, present and future.

This one day could become the focal point around which schools teach real American history — not about a European man who never stepped foot on American soil, but about the millions of people who called this land home for 23,000 years, who had languages, arts, societies, religions and more — and how all that was almost entirely lost.

We strongly encourage council to adopt the resolution to observe Indigenous People’s Day instead of Columbus Day, becoming one of 139 cities to do so. In Fact, we’d like to see Indigenous People’s Day become a statewide, even a nationwide, holiday in the near future.