Good riddance to Columbus — honor local indigenous peoples, too

David Howell

Today, the inhabitants of Austin celebrate the original inhabitants of the New World. Instead of honoring Columbus, a genocidal body-snatcher, Austin celebrates the people who first roamed this land. Four days ago, the Austin City Council voted to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day.

The Council is right to deprive Columbus of his day, but there already is an Indigenous Peoples Day, and it is not today. Austin ought to celebrate indigenous peoples as a whole on Indigenous Peoples Day: Aug. 9. To expand the gesture, Austin ought to specifically honor the indigenous people of Texas on Columbus Day.

Christopher Columbus was an evil man. Admittedly, it is unfair to judge the past with the morals of the present. But even by the moral standards of his age, Christopher Columbus was an abominable figure. Queen Isabella I of Spain, who had lent her ships to Columbus, explicitly ordered Columbus to treat the natives well. He enslaved them. Isabella had him arrested, and the Pope banned the enslavement of natives six years after Columbus’ death. In short, Columbus was a monster even by the standards of the Middle Ages.

Nevertheless, those who popularized Columbus Day were not vile racists or imperialists — they were downtrodden immigrants. The federal government established Columbus Day at the behest of Italian-Americans. Columbus, an Italian who blundered into America, was perceived as an Italian worth celebrating.

Erika M. Bsumek, an associate professor and expert in Native American history, said, “Columbus Day was started by Italian-Americans who were discriminated against in the United States. There was this push from the 1880s to the 1930s for the federal government to recognize the Italian-American population.”

Modern Italian-Americans, however, did not suffer the same injustices that their ancestors did. One cannot say the same of indigenous peoples. I welcome, therefore, the abolition of Columbus Day. Men like Columbus should not be celebrated — indigenous peoples should.

That being said, Austin just decided to celebrate indigenous peoples on the wrong day. There is already a precedent for honoring indigenous peoples and it is not on Columbus Day. On Dec. 23, 1994, the United Nations voted the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples into existence — and it has been celebrated worldwide on Aug. 9 ever since. Austin should join the world and celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day then, not on Columbus Day.

Considering the drastic cultural differences of indigenous peoples, it is inappropriate to cram the celebration of all indigenous peoples into one day. The indigenous people of Central America are as different from the indigenous people of Texas as the British are from the French. The Comanches migrated south to Texas in disjointed tribes and stalked buffalo across the Texan plain. They were, and are, a proud people — a Texan people. They deserve their own day.

The first inhabitants of Texas are not gone; they reside across Texas and on their reservations, where they preserve the remnants of their cultures. The indigenous people of Texas deserve their own day of recognition. Let this city celebrate the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, but it should also celebrate the local tribes of Texas, and it should do so on Columbus Day. And, in doing so, acknowledge the immense cultural debt Texas owes its indigenous peoples.

Howell is a history sophomore from Dallas.