Haskell professor discusses controversy surrounding Columbus Day

Marissa Ventrelli
The Ottawa Herald

For many decades, Americans have celebrated Columbus Day without knowing much about the man behind the holiday. American children grew up reciting the rhyme, "In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue", but many of us didn't learn about what he did after sailing the ocean blue until much later, and it was a shock, to say the least. 

"For years and years, we have celebrated the so-called discovery of America by someone who, in the minds of a lot of Native people as well as some non-Native people, really has a checkered past," said Dr. Eric Anderson, a Professor of Indigenous and American Indian Studies at Haskell Indian Nations University and a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. "Columbus really opened the door for colonization, and we know that the effects of colonization were very detrimental to Native people." Despite the things Columbus did to the Natives, Anderson doesn't believe American history needs to forget him altogether, but he acknowledges the narrative about him does need to change. "I think it's important to recognize that we can't change the past," he said. "To have that conversation in a way where it doesn't have to be a matter of completely taking away the role of Christopher Columbus, because win, lose or draw, he's an important person in terms of the development of what's now the United States. He's certainly seen as symbolic, and we can't deny his historical importance."

Many cities across the country, including Lawrence, have decided to celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day on the second Monday of October, rather than Columbus Day.  "It's a way of recognizing the Indigenous people of this continent and the rich cultural tapestry that they represent," Anderson said. Some Italian-American groups have advocated for keeping Columbus day, citing Columbus as an Italian icon and symbol of their heritage. Anderson said he understands both sides of the argument and believes the discussion around Columbus needs to be multi-dimensional: like many historical figures, he wasn't simply "all good" or "all bad". 

As news stories continue to pour in depicting contentious historical monuments around the world being taken down or destroyed, it seems that people around are learning the complex truths behind figures history has deemed worthy of remembering and taking action. "I think we're living in a time where folks are really reckoning with those tough parts about history," said Anderson. "I don't think we should be in the business of trying to erase history, but we can certainly wrestle with the past and have those conversations." With access to more information than ever thanks to the internet, people have the ability to do their research and decide for themselves whether or not they agree with the things these historical figures have done, many of which may not have been covered in history class. 

Officially, the state of Kansas does not observe Columbus Day. There have been efforts to make Indigenous Peoples Day a statewide holiday, but so far no progress has been made. Only three states, New Mexico, South Dakota, and Maine, celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day on a statewide level.