Though students attended classes, Native Americans on campus called for a more active rejection of Columbus Day.
The Columbia University Native American Council organized its annual Indigenous People’s Day/Abolish Columbus Day campaign on Monday in an effort to raise awareness of the effects of European colonization in North America.
The Transform Columbus Day Alliance, a nationwide movement to reject the celebration of Christopher Columbus, has been convening every year since 2001. It strives to reject historical misconceptions regarding Columbus and his so-called “discovery” of the Americas.
The cause aims to honor lives lost due to colonization and to remind people that the celebration of Columbus’s discovery of America fails to acknowledge his decimation of the indigenous population. According to John Haney, vice chair of the NAC, “8 million to 12 million Native Americans lived in North America before Columbus, but today the Native American population accounts for only a little more than 1 percent of the striking population.”
Students learned about the NAC’s cause throughout the day as the group handed red ribbons to supporters.
But some students reacted negatively to the event. “I can see where the cause is coming from, and the motivation is appropriate, but the time period is not. Columbus Day is a tradition,” Dafni Leon, BC’12 , said. “How easy will it be to cancel it? Columbus did not break any rules but just followed instructions, in comparison to the rest of imperialists in that period. There were no human rights conventions at that time. I think the Spanish people should celebrate it but not Americans.”
Maxine Paul, CC ’10 and the event’s coordinator, said she was “personally surprised by these reactions” and attributed them to misunderstanding. “People have a misconception that we are the reason why we have class on Columbus Day,” Paul said. “It was not Native American students who called for having classes today—we want the day as a holiday too, but for mourning, remembrance, and celebration.”
NAC veterans noted that there were negative reactions last year, including a Columbus Day barbecue held by the Columbia University College Republicans, because the issue was perceived as uncomfortable. “I wish there would be a way to organize more open dialogue about it. But it doesn’t seem like it’s something that people want to talk about either. I think it’s a very uncomfortable subject, but it’s just that the history of it doesn’t necessarily reflect reality,” Destiny Sullens, chair of the NAC, said.
Due to what Sullens called the biased reality of many American history textbooks, international students were more aware of the issues at hand. “International students are more educated in terms of Native Americans because international tendency is to officially recognize this aspect of European colonization as genocide,” Sullens said. “But I don’t know if their voice is strong enough to bring it into the atmosphere of Columbia.”
Paul added that the annual Indigenous People’s Day/Abolish Columbus Day event is how the NAC strives to accomplish this goal.
The day closed with a vigil at 9 p.m. around the sundial in which about 15 students stood in a circle, reading aloud from a text about Columbus Day from their perspective. “I want this to be a day of remembrance more than anything,” Sullens said. “Specifically remembrance for our ancestors, because they dealt with things a lot more violently than we do now.”
Lila Neiswanger contributed reporting.