To say that Christopher Columbus is a controversial figure is an understatement. Historically, the 15th-century explorer has been lauded for "discovering" the New World (which he technically didn't) and changing the world forever. Since 1937, his legacy has been remembered on the second Monday of October with the federal holiday of Columbus Day. But over the past two decades, the conversation has been shifting toward acknowledging the dark history behind his travels — and the question of whether we should celebrate Columbus Day in the first place.
The debate is a heated one. On one hand, Native American groups and allies say Columbus Day celebrates a man who propelled the genocide of indigenous peoples throughout the Americas, promoted the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and is the most distinct example of Western colonialism. To celebrate Christopher Columbus is to annually commemorate how European settlers wiped out indigenous peoples throughout the entire continent — through the spreading of diseases, slavery, and massacres.
That's why many have advocated for abolishing Columbus Day and replacing it with Indigenous Peoples' Day or its alternative, Native American Day. By doing so, we would stop sanitizing the legacy of Columbus and start recognizing the oppression indigenous peoples all across the Americas have suffered — and still do.
On the other hand, some Italian Americans feel that eliminating Columbus Day erases their ethnic heritage. It's the day they've chosen to celebrate their history, and many don't want it to be replaced.
As a federal holiday, the celebration of Columbus Day is quite inconsistent. Unlike on other holidays, many Americans don't have the day off. At least 16 states don't recognize Columbus Day as a public holiday and recently, more local governments are replacing the holiday altogether. As of now, the states of Minnesota, Vermont, Alaska, and South Dakota, and 55 cities (including Los Angeles, Phoenix, Seattle, Denver, and Austin) celebrate Indigenous Peoples' Day or Native American Day.
But this doesn't mean change is happening on the federal level. All recent presidents have issued proclamations recognizing the holiday. But even though President Obama's 2016 proclamation acknowledged the suffering of indigenous peoples, President Trump's didn't do the same. Instead, he praised Columbus and his legacy while omitting the uglier side of history.
"On Columbus Day, we honor the skilled navigator and man of faith, whose courageous feat brought together continents and has inspired countless others to pursue their dreams and convictions — even in the face of extreme doubt and tremendous adversity," Trump said in his statement.
Unlike Obama, Trump didn't mention indigenous people once.