Renaming Columbus day isn’t enough

Leah Carrier

If a robber were caught stealing a diamond from a jewelry store, they’d probably be arrested and fined. If a murderer were identified, they’d be put in jail, and in some states, sentenced to death. But when US colonists themselves were accused of the homicide and maltreatment of Native Americans, our fervor to punish ourselves, not surprisingly, falls short.

The DC Council passed emergency legislation on October 8 to change the name of Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day. While the bill will currently only last for one year, Councilmember David Grosso is trying to make it permanent. 

As opposed to honoring the man who instigated the abuse of Native Americans, the name-change is a big step up. But merely changing the name of a holiday does nothing to compensate for the losses of Native people, or assist them in their current challenges. If anything, the institution of Columbus Day added to America’s already apathetic record; switching its title simply takes us back to ground zero. 

The US has a shameful history of failing to make amends for its wrongdoingsalmost as shameful as the acts themselves. My guess is that the newly christened Indigenous Peoples’ Day will have a limited impact on shifting the white nationalistic beliefs towards the rights and liberties of Native peoples. It’s like putting a band-aid on a tumorsomething that is obviously an internal issue can not be treated solely through external or subtle means.

Granted, it’s not fair to say that the US has done nothing to make up for the losses of Native Americans. In 1976, the since-amended Indian Health Care Improvement Act was passed, followed by the American Indian Religious Freedom Act in 1978. But the quality of life for Native Americans today continues to sink well below that of their white counterparts: there are enormous disparities present in Native American life expectancies throughout the country (some tribes with life expectancies ranging from 40-50 years) and their rituals and values are still being destroyed by ruthless politicians. My belief is that not only does an individual in office need to take action to defend Native American rights, they must also be willing to use their position of power to educate the public about the importance of such policies. Controversial issues embedded so deeply in history can only be resolved through thorough means. 

Likewise, I hear the cries of many US citizens with Italian lineage who appreciate Columbus Day not as an assertion of Columbus’ success, but as a recognition of the success of Italian immigrants. However, celebrating your heritage in the name of a cruel, heartless man is not my idea of a holiday.

I applaud Councilman Grosso for his advocacy in raising awareness about the under-recognized struggles Native Americans had to endure on account of the US. It was inappropriate to honor the accomplishments of a man who encouraged their mistreatment; so the name switch was fitting and necessary. Maybe this new development will force citizens to acknowledge, or at least think about, the lives of those who came before them. But put into perspective, this city-wide name change only begins to address a wider, national problem of Native American injustice. It is up to us to use the momentum that Councilman Grosso created to push for better policies regarding Native Peoples’ rights so that the holiday pays more than lip service.•