Columbus Day says a lot about America. And not in a good way…

Columbus ships

Peter Apps is executive director of PS21. He tweets: @pete_apps

For most Americans, Columbus Day is little more than a day off and a chance to get some final sunshine before winter. For the descendants of the indigenous populations of the Americas, it must feel rather different.

Native Americans and other campaigners have been calling for a “reimagining” of Columbus Day. Rather than lionizing — or simply commemorating — the Italian-born explorer, they say, the day should focus on those who lived on this side of the Atlantic for thousands of years beforehand. What happened to them, they believe, has been sidelined, and almost wiped from the history books.

It’s hard not to see their point. Even now, Native Americans are remarkably marginalized.

Christopher Columbus himself, of course, has always been a somewhat problematic historical character: unreliable navigator, relentless self-publicist, chaotic colonial administrator and, many historians believe, probable mass murderer.

He certainly had guts. His entire 1492 expedition relied on the world being round — which most people had believed since the ancient Greeks, but no one had actually proved.

The Spanish-financed Columbus was relying on some distinctly dodgy geographical estimates, partly because he confused Arabic and Roman miles. He thought Japan was not much more than 1800 miles from his departure point in Cadiz. In fact, it was four times that. Had the Americas not existed, he and his crew would have died in the ocean when their supplies ran out.

What was good news for the Europeans, though, was devastating for those already there.

Franciscan friar Bartolome de la Cassas estimated that within the first 14 years of the 1494 establishment of a colony, some 3 million people — 98 percent of the pre-discovery population — had died of disease, slaughter by the Spanish or been worked to death as forced labor. “Who in future generations will believe this?” he wrote. “I myself writing it as a knowledgeable eyewitness can hardly believe it.”

Even if de la Cassas was wrong on the scale of the numbers, here clearly was a population collapse that would today be almost certainly referred to as genocide.

All of this, of course, happened well outside what is now the United States and well before its creation. But the brutal truth, Native American campaigners point out — remarkably gently, all things considered — is that what happened with Columbus opened the door to something very similar across a much wider area.

Upper estimates suggest the Native American population of what is now the United States might have peaked as high as 18 million before disease and deportations began to take their toll (although others put it significantly lower). By 1800, that number had crashed to 900,000. By 1900, only 250,000 remained — this at a time when the population descended from Europeans was skyrocketing.

Columbus, of course, was a man of his time. His fellow explorers were raised against the backdrop of the savage wars with Muslims for the future of Spain. The horrors and brutality of the Reformation were only decades away.

The Indian Wars of the 19th century — which finished only in the 1860s in the aftermath of the American Civil War — were scarcely less brutal. And for all the brutality of some of the native atrocities against settlers, there was a brutality to the U.S. government response that still shocks. Behind it, of course, was the semi- religious certainty of America’s “manifest destiny” that backed the ever-expanding westward settlements.

General William Tecumseh Sherman, commanding U.S. troops in Mississippi, wrote bluntly: “We must act with vindictive earnestness against the Sioux, even to their extermination, men, women and children.” His successor, General Philip Henry Sheridan, talked more euphemistically of the “reduction of the tribes.”

Sheridan’s strategy involved not just military action, but the mass slaughter of the wild prairie buffalo on whom the tribes depended.

“We took away their country and their means of support, broke up their means of living… introduced disease and decay among them and it was for this and against this they made war,” Sheridan later wrote. “Could anyone expect less?”

Since then, the Native American population has begun to recover. The 2010 U.S. census recorded 2.9 million people identifying as Native American or Alaskan, 0.9 percent of the total U.S. population, with another 2.3 million self-identifying as Native American and mixed race. Still, they remain among the most marginalized groups in the country — even compared to newly-arrived immigrants.

According to a report published last month by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), young adult male American Indian and Alaska Native (AIAN) had the highest rate of suicide of any group in the country — 34 deaths per thousand in the 18-24 bracket, more than twice most other groups. And that, the CDC concluded, was probably an underestimate — many suicides were not reported, they also found.

Things may be slowly changing, though. The Native American population is now no longer just confined to distant reservations: some 70 percent were recorded living in urban areas in 2012, up from 45 percent in 1970 and only eight percent in 1940. As with African-Americans,urbanization brings with it greater political activity and clout — even if it also brings new social problems like gang crime.

The campaign to rename Columbus Day, growing slowly since the 1970s, might be the strongest sign yet. Four states — Alaska, Hawaii, Oregon and South Dakota, all with considerable indigenous populations — have already replaced it with “Native American” or “Indigenous Peoples Day.” Last year, the cities of Minneapolis and Seattle joined them.

It has been a long time coming.

This article first appeared on on October 12, 2015.

PS21 is a nongovernmental, nonideological, nonpartisan organization. All views expressed are the author’s own.

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