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Why the US celebrates Columbus Day

Should Columbus Day be Indigenous Peoples’ Day?

Christopher Columbus has gone from unquestioned American hero to problematic figure. For centuries, the destruction and disease he ushered into the Americas have been excluded from most textbooks, allowing the myth of a pioneering sailor who discovered America and proved the world was round to embed itself in American mythology.

But things are changing. Historians and native activists are questioning Columbus’s legacy. Cities like Columbus, Ohio, are opting out of celebrating Columbus Day, and others like Denver, Colorado, are celebrating Indigenous Peoples’ Day instead.

The Columbus myth is built on some notable omissions. Educational videos like this one teach children that Columbus defied conventional wisdom and proved the world was round. In fact, most people at the time already knew the world was round. Columbus claimed that it was smaller than predicted, and he was wrong.

But arguably the most egregious myth is that Columbus “discovered” America, and did so peacefully. Not only where the islands he first landed on in 1492 inhabited by the Taíno people, but the arrival of Columbus and his men ushered in an era of enslavement, disease, and destruction that resulted in mass deaths of the native people on the island.

With this record, it’s hard not to wonder how Columbus became an American hero memorialized in statues and the names of cities and streets, and even a holiday complete with parades.

The answer begins during the Revolutionary War. As the US fought the British for their independence, they needed a heroic symbol, and Columbus fit the bill. He was a rebellious, non-British sailor who had left Europe for the Americas in search of opportunity.

Over the years, streets and cities were named after him. Biographies like Washington Irving’s “The First Voyages of Columbus” further cemented his glorified tales of discovery. But it was when Italian immigrants started arriving in the US in large numbers in the late 1800s that the myth of Columbus really took off.

Italians were facing harsh discrimination, which was only made worse by their Catholic beliefs. So just like the US when it was fighting for independence, Italian immigrants, bolstered by the Catholic organization Knights of Columbus, found a mythological hero to rally behind. And who better than Columbus? He was Italian, Catholic, and already admired.

Watch this video to understand how Columbus became an American icon, and why his legacy is controversial.

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