Although Christopher Columbus is often said to have “discovered” the New World in 1492, by this point in the semester it should be abundantly clear that his was a “discovery” only from the vantage point of Europeans, who were unaware of the existence of the American continents. Instead, Columbus and other European explorers encountered an incredibly diverse array of peoples comprised of hundreds of cultural and linguistic groups, from the advanced civilizations and vast cities of the Aztecs and Incas to the semi-nomadic hunting and agricultural societies of the Eastern Woodlands.
While Columbus’s voyage was undoubtedly an event of great world-historical significance, and deserves to be remembered for that reason, it should also be clear by now—as it was to European observers like Adam Smith more than 200 years ago—that Columbus’s voyage brought about “dreadful misfortunes” as well as “great benefits.” Not only did Columbus and his Spanish, Portuguese, French, Dutch, and English successors massacre and enslave tens or hundreds of thousands of Native people (with Columbus himself personally taking part in atrocities), the so-called “Columbian Exchange” of smallpox and other diseases led to perhaps the greatest single episode of loss of life in human history—with some estimates putting the death toll at 80 million, or about 1/5th of the world’s population at the time, over decades. For these reasons, even other Europeans during the Age of Exploration referred to the initial conquest of Native regions by the Spanish as the “Black Legend,” an acknowledgment of the cruelty of early European colonizers as well as the great loss of life that attended the conquest of the Americas.
Although Native peoples often resisted fiercely, sometimes successfully staving off incursions by European settlers for decades or longer, much of the history of the interaction between indigenous people and settlers in what became the United States follows a similar narrative of dispossession, displacement, and cultural erasure. From a population of perhaps 10-18 million at the time of Columbus’s voyage, today in the United States there are less than 3 million people who claim to be of full Native American ancestry, less than 1 per cent of the population. Not without reason, then, have many scholars and others characterized the policies of the United States government towards Native American peoples in this period of history as constituting genocide.
For all these reasons, some have proposed that it would be more appropriate to celebrate this holiday as “Indigenous People’s Day,” shifting the focus to the history of Native people and their descendants throughout the Americas (and for Italian-Americans who view the day as a celebration of their culture, why not dedicate a new holiday to Amerigo Vespucci, the Florentine navigator who is credited with establishing the fact that the Americas were separate continents, or any one of hundreds of notable Italian-Americans since then?) This year, President Biden became the first U.S. president to officially recognize Oct. 11th as Indigenous Peoples’ Day, breaking a longstanding tradition of celebrating European colonizers while ignoring our indigenous past. Time will tell if this marks the inauguration of a new era in our remembrance of U.S. history, or only the latest battle in the so-called “culture wars” that have overshadowed such national discussions of history, race, and identity since the 1990s.