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Illustration by Christina Tang

The obvious reason not to celebrate Columbus Day is that he did not discover America any more than I discovered Columbia the day in September 1960 when I first set foot on campus, the first of my friends from Flushing to do so. But there is also a serious reason.

Beyond the murder of Native Americans that Christopher Columbus and his men personally engaged in, Columbus triggered one of the longest and most deadly genocides in history. When Columbus landed in 1492, it is estimated there were between 10 and 15 million indigenous people in the area that now constitutes the United States. By 1880, there were 300,000 (which initiated a public debate about whether to simply kill off the remaining ones and be done with it or try to "civilize" them).

While it is true that many of the deaths were caused by disease rather than murder, there was always a reckless disregard for the lives of the Native people, and at times, a conscious public policy, particularly in the 1800s, to eradicate the Native American population. For example, in 1851 and 1852, California alone appropriated over $1 million to be used as a bounty for the scalps of Native American men, women and children.

In the seminars I teach at Columbia on contemporary issues facing Native American communities, the students concluded that the actions against Native Americans, particularly after the United States became a country, satisfy all of the criteria for genocide under the United Nations Convention on Genocide, including "killing members of the group" and "deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part." Despite this, even today, children in this country are taught approvingly about Manifest Destiny, i.e., that a Christian God gave the brave pioneers the right to occupy the lands from sea to shining sea and thus the right to displace those living there.

While American schoolchildren may not understand that what really occurred was a conscious extermination policy, someone else did. Documents show that Adolph Hitler used the efforts to exterminate Native Americans and replace them with settler farmers as a model for his Lebensraum campaign to eliminate the inhabitants of Eastern Europe and replace them with German farmers. After observing that "Nordics" had colonized the West after they had "shot down the millions of redskins to a few hundred thousand," he predicted that "here in the East a similar process will repeat itself".

It is worth setting aside Oct. 13, but for a different purpose. Data from Indian country shows that while there are many successful Native Americans (including a spectacular group at Columbia College), the effects of the trauma flowing from the events triggered by Columbus continue to plague Native American communities, particularly Native American youth. Studies in the field of epigenetics have demonstrated that the effects of traumatic events can pass physiologically from one generation to the next, so that the descendants suffer traumatization similar to that suffered by the actual victims of the trauma. Native Americans have the highest rate of high school drop-outs, approaching 50 percent, and the lowest rate of students attending college of any ethnic group in the country, the highest youth suicide rate, and many other indices of trauma.

Rather than celebrating Columbus, the country should spend the day exploring what it can do to help the Native American community remedy the extraordinary harm Columbus and his progeny did to the original inhabitants of this country.

By not celebrating Columbus Day, Columbia demonstrates its respect for the valid perspectives of the indigenous students at the University whose peoples, lands, and cultures were victimized by "explorers" such as Columbus. It also sends a message that is particularly important in light of today's headlines: that Columbia will not tolerate those who believe in and act on a supposedly God-ordained right to conquer and exterminate others.

The author is a 1964 graduate of Columbia College. He is an adjunct professor at the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race. To see other pieces from this Scope, click here.

To respond to this piece, or to submit an op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspectator.com. 

Columbus Day native americans Christopher Columbus
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