This past Monday was Columbus Day, a legal U.S. holiday recognized by a majority of the country. When I think of Columbus Day, I automatically recall the poem that was drilled into my mind in fifth grade. It begins, “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue,” and then ends with oversimplifying rhymes about Columbus’ ships, Spain and “nice” natives.
However, some states, including Alaska and Hawaii, do not publicly celebrate this holiday. Currently, there are questions as to whether observing a holiday in honor of Christopher Columbus is actually appropriate, based on his colonization of a land that wasn’t the “New World” at all, but had already been inhabited by indigenous peoples for thousands of years. It is necessary to remember that Columbus and his crew murdered, raped and enslaved countless natives, and native communities are still affected to this day by the imperial tactics of subsequent European explorers.
There are those who believe the holiday should be renamed, to the indignant astonishment of some. In fact, this has already occurred in some communities; in April, Minneapolis renamed the holiday Indigenous Peoples’ Day, as did Seattle this month, and the holiday has been coined Native American Day since 1990 in South Dakota.
I don’t think we should be “celebrating” colonization at all, and while Western society cannot change the past, it can most certainly abolish a disgraceful national holiday.
In particular, Oswego State should appreciate and respect indigenous peoples, especially since native communities surround us. Oswego is located near the Akwesasne Mohawk, Oneida and Onondaga Nations. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the word “Oswego” derives from the Iroquoian “osh-we-geh,” meaning the mouth of a river. Our college is located on what used to be land solely inhabited by the Iroquois. Towns, rivers, counties and more have been named after nations of the Iroquois Confederacy or after Iroquoian language. On Oswego State’s west campus, constructed in the ‘60s and ‘70s (coincidentally- – or maybe not so coincidentally — during the American Indian Movement), several residence halls were named after four of the nations: Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca and Oneida.
Nonetheless, considering the native communities that remain in Upstate New York, Oswego State’s native diversity is lacking. Oswego State only offers Native American Studies as a minor and only offered a scant three courses in Native American Studies this semester. According to Oswego State’s Institutional Research and Assessment page, a mere 12 American Indian or Alaskan Native undergraduate students attended Oswego State in the fall of 2013. Once the only residents of the Great Lakes Region, American Indians account for the smallest ethnic group and represent only 0.2 percent of all undergrad students here at Oswego State.
So what does this mean? It’s important to remember the presence of indigenous peoples’ histories as our own western culture continues to forget and quell native cultures. As students that reside in an area so significant to Iroquois histories, past and present, it is our responsibility to practice active awareness and recognition of our place in this colonized nation.
Should Columbus Day be celebrated? Should we commend a day that encourages ignorance of indigenous peoples’ realities? No. Definitely not.