Columbus Day is Not a Day for Celebration


A statue in Columbus circle in Manhattan honors Christopher Columbus. (TESSA VAN BERGEN/ THE OBSERVER)


Every October, schools, universities and institutions all over the United States reconsider their participation in Columbus Day. Many “liberal institutions” have sought to distance themselves from the holiday, as it is a reminder to Native Americans of the ways their centuries-long and ongoing struggles as residents of this country are silenced in favor of the “colonial successes” narrative. For instance, Columbia University and Pace University, both our neighbors, are open on Columbus Day; while another one of our neighbors, NYU, does have Oct. 12 off this year, it is listed in the academic calendar as being part of “fall break.”

For those of us who have forgotten, Christopher Columbus was a notorious brute who never actually made it to North America’s mainland; the closest he got was the Bahamas. His one claim to fame–“discovering America”–is sullied by the fact that indigenous people were already there. It is also thought that Leif Erikson touched down in North America nearly 500 years before Columbus. When Columbus reached Latin America and the Bahamas, he was pretty certain he had made it to Asia. Regardless, Columbus was able to overtake the indigenous population, enslave them and decimate them, whether intentionally or with diseases brought over from Europe which the indigenous people were unable to survive. Those who didn’t die of illness were literally worked to death, murdered trying to escape or killed themselves, often in mass suicides. Columbus and his men are most accurately remembered for the intensity of their attack on the indigenous people, committing atrocious acts of rape and murder.

But for Fordham and the Catholic Church, Christopher Columbus is not the only controversial colonial figure. During Pope Francis’s inaugural visit to the United States, he chose to canonize Junipero Serra, an 18th century Franciscan missionary who converted indigenous Americans to Catholicism during the spread of Spanish colonization of California. Many rejoiced at the canonization of the first Hispanic saint, with Pope Francis considering that induction so significant that the Vatican did not require proof of two miracles–which is typically what’s required for canonization–for Serra.

To put this in perspective, Mother Theresa, who much of the 21st-century world may already consider a saint, is in the process of having her second miracle proven in Brazil. A nearly 20 year process to canonize American Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement and the namesake of our own Dorothy Day Center for Service and Justice, is still in its fledgling stages. I say all this to make the point that obviously sainthood is a big deal, and the Vatican doesn’t just give the title to anyone. But then this raises the question, why make shortcuts for, and dedicate part of your first papal visit to America to, someone like Junipero Serra? Pope Francis referenced his great talents as an evangelizer, and his general success with converting Native Americans. However, in his own writings Serra encouraged corporal punishment for those Americans who attempted to run away from the Spanish missions. In fact, most Americans who “successfully converted” were instead just afraid of death via displacement from their lands, or worse, at the hands of the same colonizers that Serra rolled in with, and knew that the missions were where food and shelter was accessible. While we may phrase such colonial takeovers as “successes,” either for Catholicism, Spain or whoever, what’s important is to remember who is losing as a result. And, as history has proven, indigenous Americans have had to lose the most, as Columbus Day (or, as some places now call it, Indigenous People’s Day) reminds us every year.

Normally, I would complain to those around me about how antiquated and oppressive it is that we celebrate Columbus Day. Now, it seems totally transparent. Of course we’d celebrate Columbus Day, why wouldn’t we? Catholicism was successfully used during colonialism to oppress indigenous people throughout the Americas in order to gain land and capital! The act of Columbus-ing was such a great tool for us in the past!

OK, in seriousness: the Catholic Church has to take a long, hard look at itself, considering how shady it is that they chose to canonize Junipero Serra of all figures. His being the first Spanish-speaking and Hispanic saint is cheapened by the fact that though he is a great presence for the huge population of Catholic Latinos, not only is he not actually Latino (he is, as noted above, thought to be Spanish), but his story is not one in which the conversion to Catholicism was voluntary. Not only that, but Fordham as an institution should be taking that same long hard look that I’d recommend to the Vatican at their decision to participate in Columbus Day.

The actions Christopher Columbus took, that Junipero Serra was able to twist into a religious pilgrimage, are directly related to Fordham’s 0.1% American Indian population (as reported on the Fordham website). The type of brutality that Columbus, and frankly, the Catholic Church, participated in drastically reduced the indigenous population and set the stage for the treatment of indigenous peoples in America for the following centuries, leading up to the abysmal conditions that American Indians are forced to live in today, without any types of adequate reparations. Their communities are still plagued by diseases, such as alcoholism and diabetes, without the resources needed to properly address them; unemployment is chronic and pervasive; and due to figures like Columbus and Serra, their populations are still miniscule, making keeping their cultural traditions alive–let alone surviving–a struggle. According to the Justice Department, one in three Native women has been raped. The suicide rate for Native Americans has been estimated at 190% the national average. Just as we should be embarrassed by our number, by the sainthood of Junipero Serra, we should also be embarrassed by our celebration of Columbus Day. The least we can do as a university is to stop honoring a holiday that does nothing more than celebrate the existence of such ugly history, and unfortunately, the ugly ramifications it has for our present.