Fall arrives and with it a series of holidays, some official, some traditional, some nationally observed, while others are still relatively unknown or acknowledged. Two of these festive days revolve around national origins—a nod to European (Spanish and British) founders of the United States. The first Columbus Day commemorations took place in Colorado in 1906. Thanksgiving as a national event dates to 1863. Attempts to formally recognize the United States’ original inhabitants, Amerindians, did not occur until 1992. Indigenous People’s Day was a response to the events and ceremonies marking the quincentennial anniversary of Columbus’ landing in the Caribbean that continued to glorify and idealize the Italian (or Spanish?) venture capitalist while ignoring the dramatic changes that Spanish invasion and colonization brought to the Amerindian population. The federal government declared Columbus Day an official holiday in 1937 while Thanksgiving followed soon after in 1941. While some public institutions acknowledge Indigenous Peoples’ Day through a series of events or public talks, it remains an unofficial holiday, unmarked on calendars and given relatively little attention by mainstream media. Why have the public and the state been so eager to embrace one and so disinterested in the other?
The continued dominance of both Columbus Day and Thanksgiving speaks to the persistence of origin stories out of sync with historical evidence. In their early days, these celebrations embedded native peoples in sanitized and romanticized storylines of friendly Indians and harmonious relationships between colonized and colonizers. Columbus, or Cristobal Colon, as the Spanish would have known him, was christened the “discoverer of the Americas.” Despite all evidence to the contrary, he continues to be depicted as an intrepid explorer, a Christian crusader, and a benign and fatherly leader to the Amerindian population he ultimately exploited and enslaved (for this version, see, for example, the 1992 film 1492: The Conquest of Paradise). A series of histories of native peoples based on their words and writings, movements like Indigenous Peoples’ Day, and revised entries in elementary and high school text books have yet to generate the momentum to replace Columbus Day with an Amerindian holiday (although more cities, such as Santa Fe, are doing so at the local level).
Columbus’ continued appeal perhaps lies in the general public’s preference for engaging history through the life and exploits of great individuals, traditionally those of a European man. Biographies, for example, continue to be top sellers (just peruse the New York Times Best Seller List on any given week). We rarely have enough documents from the colonial Spanish American period (1492-1825) to tell the story of one indigenous person; although with painstaking work scholars have been able to recreate histories for some Amerindian communities. Because native peoples were not readily apparent in the documentation, the writings of early historians perpetuated two enduring, but flawed narratives: the myth that the majority of the native population and their practices had not survived colonial rule and the glorification of heroic Christian Spanish conquistadores.
Once told, these stories are hard to unlearn, embedding themselves in the national consciousness and resisting retellings. Studies, for example, indicate that immigrants don’t hurt the economy, don’t take jobs away from native-born citizens, and don’t exhibit unusually high rates of crime. Yet these beliefs persist. Professional historians seek to nuance these traditional stories or public sentiments, aligning myths with evidence and revealing the multiple protagonists that shaped historical events and periods. In a year thick with a climate of nostalgia for a romanticized United States, the thoughtful reconsideration of as many traditional narratives or popular beliefs as possible, including those behind the settlement of the Americas, falls to everyone.Dana Velasco Murillo is an Associate Professor of History at the University of California, San Diego. She researches the intersections of colonialism with ethnicity, gender, identity formation, and urbanism in early Latin America. Her book, Urban Indians in a Silver City: Zacatecas, Mexico, 1546-1810, examines how ethnically diverse indigenous migrants re-created native communities and indigenous identities.