Why We Celebrate Columbus Day
There's hardly a more forgettable holiday than the innocuous and poorly observed Columbus Day. Celebrated in the U.S. on the second Monday in October, Columbus Day commemorates the discovery of the Western hemisphere by Christopher Columbus and the beginning of European colonization. Ironically, this obscure date has evolved into the most controversial and politicized of all holidays.
There is a movement afoot to replace Columbus Day by something called Indigenous People's Day. Notably, the emphasis is not merely to celebrate the heritage that belongs to the native peoples of the Americas but to replace and thus obliterate Columbus Day. The narrative that purports to justify the replacement of Columbus Day with Indigenous People's Day goes something like this. Before the arrival of European colonists, the indigenous peoples of the Americas lived peacefully in idyllic harmony with nature. Christopher Columbus was not an intrepid explorer who opened up new vistas but a vicious slave trader who initiated the genocidal murder of native peoples by rapacious Europeans. The arrival of Europeans in the New World therefore was not an event worthy of celebration, it was a calamity that deserves condemnation. The obvious corollary is that the United States is an immoral nation. Indeed, Western Civilization itself is a monstrous blight intent upon the conquest, rape, and murder of the entire planet.
Let us admit that Christopher Columbus was no saint. He was a brutal conqueror who took slaves. Having conceded these irrelevant points, Columbus Day is nevertheless worth preserving. That's because it's not so much a celebration of one man's character as a commemoration of the arrival and triumph of Western Civilization.
Before the era of European colonization, the indigenous peoples of the Americas existed quite literally in the Stone Age. Their level of technological development lagged Europeans by thousands of years. With the single exception of Mayan ideographs, American Indians did not possess a written language. There is some evidence of Pre-Columbian smelting in South and Central America, but metallurgy among North American tribes was confined to working native metals. Not only was the effectively wheel unknown in the Americas, Indians lacked even horses. Their only mode of transportation was walking.
The indigenous peoples of the Americas were not peaceful. Indigenous lives were "nasty, brutish, and short." Archaeologists such as Steven LeBlanc believe that conflict between Indian tribes was endemic and intense. Warfare was usually conducted with the genocidal aim of complete annihilation. The homicide rate in Pre-Columbian America is estimated to have been about a hundred times higher than in the present day U.S. About one-third of adult males died in warfare. In the healthiest communities, life expectancy at birth was probably no more than thirty-five years.
Pre-Columbian America was not a pristine wilderness and indigenous peoples did not live in ecological harmony with nature. On the contrary, native Americans profoundly altered the landscape by burning forests, despoiling wildlife and vegetation, and constructing earthworks, roads, and settlements. Their exploitation of nature was often destructive. Mayan civilization collapsed around AD 900 due to soil erosion and unsustainable agricultural practices.
American Indians had many virtues. European colonists respected Indians for their intelligence, courage, and the ability to endure hardship and pain. But Indians also engaged in torture, human sacrifice, and cannibalism. In Mexico during the 14th and 15th centuries, Aztecs practiced human sacrifice and cannibalism on a grand scale. On a single day in the year 1487, as many as 80,000 people may have been sacrificed. Estimates of the number of people killed and eaten by the Aztecs annually from 15,000 to 250,000 a year. Spanish historian Bernardino de Sahagún (1499-1590) was aghast to discover that Aztec parents would willingly turn over their own children for sacrifice and then eat the bodies.
Although Europeans are invariably condemned for the practice of slavery, American Indians also enslaved each other. In addition to being subjected to forced labor, captives were tortured, killed, and eaten. Among the primary documents testifying to this are the diaries of Jesuit missionary Isaac Jogues (1607-1646). Taken captive by the Hurons, Jogues was beaten with clubs, his fingernails were chewed off, and he was burnt with hot coals. These tortures were repeated incessantly over a period of several months. Love of torture was a cultural norm among American Indians. President Theodore Roosevelt noted that "anyone who has ever been in an encampment of wild Indians, and has had the misfortune to witness the delight the children take in torturing little animals, will admit that the Indian's love of cruelty for cruelty's sake cannot possibly be exaggerated."
Before the modern era Europeans also practiced slavery and torture. But they stopped these practices. Europeans introduced Indians to Christian charity and the ideal of universal human brotherhood. They ended the ceaseless warfare between Indian tribes and enabled them to live in peace. It is true that Europeans introduced smallpox, malaria, measles, yellow fever, and other infectious diseases to the Western Hemisphere. But pre-Columbian America was hardly disease-free. Endemic diseases native to the Americas included treponemiasis, tuberculosis, tularemia, giardia, rabies, amebic dysentery, hepatitis, herpes, pertussis, and poliomyelitis. Nearly all of these infectious diseases were eventually brought under control by Western technology and medicine.
Did Europeans steal Indian lands? According to Theodore Roosevelt, American Indians never had a legitimate title to the lands they occupied. The de facto rule was that the land belonged to whomever could take it by force. No tribe recognized or respected the land rights of any other tribe. It's entirely disingenuous to condemn Europeans for playing by the rules established by the Indians themselves.
There can be no doubt that Indians often suffered terrible injustices at the hands of European colonists. But it's a historical fact that atrocities were committed by both sides. In The Winning of the West, President Roosevelt related that the "normal and customary" fate of a white woman captured by Indians was "impalement on charred sticks, fingernails split off backward, finger-joints chewed off, [and] eyes burnt out." "It was inevitable," Roosevelt concluded, that such "hideous, unnamable, [and] unthinkable tortures... should awake in the breasts of the whites the grimmest, wildest spirit of revenge and hatred."
It's fashionable today to condemn people of European descent for cultural appropriation. But when Europeans arrived, Indians quickly adopted their technologies. They readily employed steel tomahawks, horses, and guns. The appropriation of Western culture and technology by Indians today has been wholesale and complete. Among the Western institutions embraced by native Americans is the vice of gambling. Indian tribes in the U.S. today derive annual revenues of about $27 billion from 460 casinos.
People have a right to celebrate their heritage, culture and traditions. But there's a difference between celebrating your own culture and creating a false narrative to hypocritically attack a culture that you have shamelessly appropriated. The rationale for replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous People's Day is entirely disconnected from historical reality. Indian life in pre-Columbian America was vastly harder in every conceivable way than it is today. Indians thus have reason to celebrate Columbus Day. Thanks to European colonization and the introduction of Western civilization their lives are immeasurably better than those of their ancestors.
Dr. Deming is professor of arts and sciences at the University of Oklahoma, and the author of Science and Technology in World History (McFarland, 2010, 2012, 2016).