Columbus Day Critique

In this day and age, Christopher Columbus is known by most Americans as the brave and tireless explorer who made the treacherous journey across the Atlantic to discover the New World. It’s a common perception, seeing as how the earliest mentions of the explorer originate in elementary school most often, and paint him as a heroic figure that civilized the Americas. Well, as it would turn out, not only is this view point incredibly wrong, it’s downright insulting to many Native Americans, some of which have actually gone as far as to equate Columbus with Hitler. The issue that is taken against the typically renown explorer is that the Native American people feel that the celebration of Columbus day is in a way a celebration of the mass genocide against their people that the European colonist brought about. Now obviously, this was not the intention of anyone planning the parades or celebrations. However, in the movie Unsettling Columbus Day it is clearly shown that the intentions of one group may come off as offensive to another. Particularly, the apparent embracement of Columbus as a cultural figure in the Italian community upsets the Native Americans, for to them the treatment of Columbus and the explorers that came with him was nothing to be celebrated. For this reason, the Native Americans gather every year to protest the Columbus Day parade in Columbus, Colorado where it was first established.


The Native American community is hurt that almost no regard is given to their sentiments on such a day that has a very significant part of their own history behind it. A fair compromise perhaps would be to include the Native peoples in deciding what should be done concerning the day, and involve them more proactively in the archaeological anaylisis of the history of Columbus. This process would take the form of indigenous archaeology. Indigenous archaeology is the form of archaeology in which indigenous people are involved in the excavation and care of the culture and artifacts of their ancestors. By neglecting the Native people’s concerns and their outreach to assist in more fully developing a coherent and correct history of Christopher Columbus for all, one big wave of ignorance is formed in which protesters are seemingly angry with no direction, as seen in the documentary, and parade goers are insulted anyone would ruin their fun. Through indigenous archaeology, the Native Americans can settle the offensive material away from the festive, and establish a more fairly balanced telling of Columbus for even textbooks.


Unsettling Columbus Day

Though the movie that was showed for the Unsettling Columbus Day event never directly mentioned archaeology in any capacity, its message no doubt remains in tune with that of indigenous archaeology.  The film was a half-hour documentary of sorts.  If followed a Native American group in Denver, Colorado as they tried to raise awareness and hopefully put a stop to the Columbus Day parade that was scheduled to happen.  While to most white (or at least non-Native American) people featured in the video regarded the holiday as a sort of origin story for their country, the initial event that would in time precipitate both America and their personal families’ history in it, the Native Americans, understandably did not.  Rather, they saw it as the event that would eventually result in the subjugation of their people, the displacement from their lands and, most horribly, mass genocide.  It’s striking to think of the stark contrast between the two views of this day that come so naturally to these two groups of people.

It is no mystery then, how indigenous archaeology relates to these themes being discussed.  The central goal of indigenous archaeology is to prevent the such one-sided views from occurring in study of past cultures.  Given that fact the Native American population is so small in America compared to other demographics, it is no surprise that they are underrepresented in the field, even when it is their own culture that is being studied.  Indigenous archaeology, then, seeks to include members of a culture being studied in the research process so as to prevent the misinterpretations and insensitive practices that can go on without them.

This deference to indigenous perspectives shows an attitude of acknowledgement and respect that is sadly denied to the protesters in the film.  Though their demonstrations got a bit extreme (at one point, a protester poured a bucket containing fake blood and a baby doll in front of the parade’s path), their being upset is very understandable.  As was mentioned in the post-film discussion, Native Americans are often forgotten in the public consciousness as a still existing people, in large part due to the atrocities committed against them that greatly reduced their numbers, paired with the desire of white Americans to forget their immoral, bloody past.  Thus, practices like indigenous archaeology bridges the gap between the Native American and European American communities that is built by such attitudes.

Rethinking Columbus Day

In a film screening about the Columbus Day parade protests in Columbus, Colorado (where Columbus Day originated), it was very interesting to see the arguments that Native Americans made that show how oppressive and wrong these parades truly are. Everything that Columbus Day represents is incredibly offensive to the ancestors and descendants of Native Americans. What Columbus Day stands for is genocide, violence, and dominance over Native Americans.

Anti-Columbus Day protests in Colorado

Anti-Columbus Day protests in Colorado

It is interesting how glorified Columbus is today. From elementary school forward, I have learned that Columbus was brave, determined, and heroic. However, in reality, he destroyed the lives of so many people and took their land as if it were his own. This holiday shows disrespect of Native American culture and sends a bad representation of Italian American culture as well. At one point in the film, an Italian American (who is on the Native American’s side of this issue) reminds people that these parades are not reflections of Italian American culture and heritage.

There is also the question of “what can we do about this issue today?” This matter is clearly affecting Native Americans currently and we need to ask ourselves what we can do in order to make this better for them. It is an interesting topic because it is more about pride and dominance than anything. Admitting today that what Columbus did was wrong would subject a person to accusations of being unpatriotic and questioning the “pure” origins of the United States.

This relates to indigenous archaeology as well because it shows the effect that the past (and our treatment of the past) has on people today. It is important that we respect archaeological sites that belonged to indigenous people because it is still theirs. Listening to these people and actually hearing them out helps us find common ground and decreases the “othering” that is used in the etic approach of indigenous archaeology. When excavating in an area that was occupied by native people, it is important to use techniques that show respect to them. Looting is the exact opposite of the correct way to carry out indigenous archaeology. It shows disrespect and offense to the native peoples. This also relates to the people who put on Columbus Day parades. They are belittling the culture and history of Native Americans and are acting superior to them by celebrating a murderer of their people. If abolishing Columbus Day is not attainable, each side must learn to listen to each other and make compromises in order to begin to respect one another.



Columbus: Saint or Sinner?

Victorious. Courageous. Lionhearted. Determined. Heroic.

These are words commonly associated with Christopher Columbus, the Italian explorer sponsored by Spain in the 15th century. His daring voyage across the treacherous Atlantic Ocean nearly cost him his life and the lives of all the sailors on board the Niña, Pinta, and Santa Maria, yet it culminated with him “discovering” the Americas and founding the New World.

Columbus reaches the “New” world

How he managed to reserve the title as “founder” of the New World is truly an enigma. North America had been inhabited for millennia prior, by migrants who crossed the Bering Strait in Alaska to Vikings who sailed from Scandinavia and landed ashore in what is today Newfoundland. Even though archaeological evidence indicates settlements prior to Columbus, textbooks today still attribute the discovery of America towards him; and when he traveled back to America, he spurred on one of the largest genocides the world has ever seen.

To refute the common claim of Columbus being the first man to discover America, archaeologists, historians, anthropologists, and students from across the nation have been condemning such history textbooks. Protests appealing against Columbus Day parades shown in Unsettling Columbus Day views Columbus day from the perspective of Native Americans.

Columbus Day parade

This form of anthropology is referred to as “indigenous archaeology”. Indigenous archaeology heavily relies on the perspectives of the native population and uses a more multilinear approach to archaeology in order to gain a more holistic understanding of a society. In a scenario such as the Columbus Day parade, the opinions of the Native Americans play a vital role. Their viewpoints portray a vivid picture of their unified anger towards the celebration of a man who arguably set the ball rolling in the extermination of the vast majority of the indigenous peoples of America.

This country was built on opposition – the colonials revolted against the British and resulted in an independent America. It runs today, as a democracy, on debates in the Senate and judicial system. As a nation, the very concept of being able to stand up for one’s own rights and having an individual voice is fundamental in its constitution. Unsettling Columbus Day displays that very sentiment by showcasing various stances taken by Native Americans on Columbus Day. By utilizing indigenous archaeology, the movie is not only able to bring about different perspectives, but also emphasize emotions and therefore connect with the audience.


Ashmore, Wendy, and Robert J. Sharer. Discovering Our Past: A Brief Introduction to Archaeology

Columbus’ Conquest and Indigenous Archaeology

As a grade-school student, I learned very little about pre-Columbus history of the Americas. Even in AP US History, only one chapter out of 30 described the natives that lived undisrupted before European settlers moved in. The story in itself is completely one-sided. Though many Americans celebrate the day in remembrance of a great navigator, they remain unaware of the atrocities Columbus’ travels brought to the natives. By ignoring the other, negative side of what Columbus accomplished, the American celebration of this day legitimizes such a conquest. The importance of rewriting the story relates to the indigenous archaeological approach.

Indigenous archaeology uses the study of past human activity in a way different from older techniques. Focus is placed on deconstructing colonization frameworks and bringing cultures in the margin to the center. A key piece of this approach is to involve the culture being studied, thus giving agency back to the people while studying a culture in a fair, nonjudgmental way. The movie Unsettling Columbus Day attempts to study the national holiday from multiple perspectives. Though material culture is not necessarily addressed, the voices of Native Americans is brought forth to the center and discussed. A very effective part of the film also discussed the importance of the holiday to Italian immigrants, as Columbus himself was Italian. This holiday, for Italians, celebrates a Euro-American origin story, as Italian Americans were treated poorly, as well. The question then becomes, is there room for two minorities?

The indigenous archaeology approach is very suitable for such a question. Decolonizing the past does not necessarily mean replacing one majority group with another. Instead, balancing all the voices of the past and listening to many sides of a story. Due to the horrible actions committed by Columbus, many can relate his story to that of current terrorism. Others who celebrate the holiday do so with a sense of pride in America and Italian heritage. The issue lies not in celebrating the conquest of Native Americans, then. The name of the holiday itself implies that America condones what happened many years ago. Compromise must be made on what exactly is being celebrated and accepted by the American culture at large. It is of the utmost importance to keep in mind all sides of the story, as well as give power to those who deserve it the most. To construct a more equal future for all, rewriting the history is necessary.

-Kathryn Marshall