Kathleen DuVal, a UNC history professor, said the shift away from Columbus Day is largely due to Christopher Columbus’ treatment of Native Americans.
“Initially, he wanted to trade with Indians, and his first visit was pretty peaceful,” she said. “But when he realized that his men had gotten into war with nearby Taino Indians, he and his men slaughtered as many of them as they could find and eventually enslaved and exploited many Tainos, along with others.”
Columbus Day has been a national holiday since 1934. DuVal said the holiday has existed for so long because Americans are afraid of erasing history — yet she stressed there is a difference between teaching about a historical figure and honoring them.
“I think sometimes Americans think if you stop celebrating someone, you then ignore them completely,” Duval said. “Columbus is interesting in part because he’s complicated. He did really important things, and he did terrible things, and that’s not something to celebrate, but it is something to study.”
DuVal said while Columbus was instrumental in the European settlement of America, he did not discover the continent — as an entire civilization was already settled in the Americas — nor did he possess any remarkably unique navigational talent.
“Columbus didn’t discover America; he was discovered when he came to America,” said Amy Hertel, the director of the UNC American Indian Center.
Elena Jacobs-Polanco, a UNC junior, found the honoring of Columbus as an insult to her Native American heritage.
“I do find it offensive that America still glorifies the actions of a murderer and a rapist,” she said. “By doing so, it invalidates the historical trauma and negative impact that his presence here had on the indigenous peoples and the impact that this trauma still has on us today.”
Jacobs-Polanco said the momentum of Indigenous Peoples Day has given her optimism.
“By claiming this day as Indigenous Peoples Day, I hope that it will bring awareness and inform people that we are still here,” she said.